A lot of plays indeed. Of his team-high dozen tackles at LSU last week, Wright scored some coming off the far end of the defensive line. A three-man line, usually, as Mississippi State tried some mixing and matching of sets beyond the 4-3 base the Bulldogs are built on. "On third down they've got me rushing the passer, giving me different spots so I can be effective," said Wright. "That's one of the defenses we like and it can be real good for us."
It was certainly a good plan for Wright as he worked his way in on four primary tackles and eight assists. In a single game he vaulted to the top of the team tackle chart with 23, one-up on linebacker comrade Chris White. Of course Wright began the year slowly as an opening night ankle injury limited him to a single tackle against Memphis. He more than made up for it with ten stops against Auburn, and tied his prior career-best (12, Georgia Tech 2009).
"I did real good the first half of the game. I was unblocked with our scheme and they weren't blocking the will linebacker. I was just making the play. They tried to block me at some point but being a linebacker you have to get off blocks and that's what I did, get off blocks and make the tackles." Which, Wright adds, remains the gameplan this senior fall whatever position he comes from.
"My team needs me to make tackles and I'm going to go out there and do it."
"I thought K.J. was outstanding. It was definitely his best game of the three, he was more active," linebacker coach and coordinator Manny Diaz said. "He's probably getting more comfortable with ‘will' linebacker and I think a game like that will do nothing but help his confidence."
DOG-GED DEFENDERS: Wright and all Bulldog defenders will need every iota of confidence possible this weekend as they take on a different sort of SEC challenge. Georgia might be off to the same sort of 0-2 start in league play as State, and both opponents have lost a pair of games to ranked teams. Still MSU coaches and players alike appreciate the talent their canine counterparts bring to Scott Field.
Especially in the fellow calling the cadence. MSU Coach Dan Mullen hasn't faced UG triggerman Aaron Murray on the field yet but he knows the redshirt freshman well. "I recruited him actually," said Mullen, referring to his tenure as Florida assistant. "He was MVP of the quarterback camp we had at Florida. So I've known him a very long time."
Linebacker Wright knows Murray is a change of pace from the passers he has chased the last two SEC weekends. And unlike Cam Newton or Jordan Jefferson, this quarterback operates out of a more traditional I-set. "When we know we have a quarterback that can run and pass we have to watch him a little bit more," said Wright. "So we can focus mainly on the pass when he drops back." Well, the MSU Dogs can once they are sure Murray hasn't handed it off in play action, that is.
And Diaz cautions his club. "Don't let Murray fool you, he can move. So again you have to do a great job tackling guys who can move like that."
As noted in Tuesday's practice report update, both Brantley Adams and Dylan Favre are playing Murray's role on the scout offense this week. Though after Sunday's initial prep-practice, Wright couldn't immediately recall who was the scout quarterback. "I can't think of the name, it was #15!" the senior admitted before a writer prompted him. "Adams! He does a very good job getting us ready for the game," Wright rebounded.
One Georgia Dog that State does not have to duplicate in practice—not that anyone could—is A.J. Green, regarded by many as the nation's best wide receiver. Green is serving the final game of a four-weekend suspension. "Obviously he's a big loss because he's such a special talent," Diaz said.
"But they still run their offense, they do what they do and what they've done for years and years that has made them successful. They're going to get in the ‘I' and pound that rock and try to get a people close to the line of scrimmage and then try to throw it over your head. So they present a big challenge. Even without their star receiver they're making hay on offense."
Mullen expects Georgia to lead with the ground game in any event. After all, the MSU coach got to see Mark Richt's team in action annually when he was calling plays for Florida 2005-08, and while Mullen saw many great passers in scarlet-and-black he knows how Georgia prefers to play. "They're going to run the football. That is their number-one deal, to be a physical running team that loves the play-action pass. Most teams that rare power running teams are going to take shots. They have a very talented quarterback who can make all those big throws." Of course nobody can throw, or throw well, in the grasp of a defender. It has been a frustrating September for State DE Pernell McPhee, who has yet to score a sack through three games. But Diaz says stats don't show just how effective the senior end has been.
"I think Pernell has been our best defensive lineman, definitely our best outside guy." The difficulty for McPhee and mates has been first and foremost the mobility of those passer/runners they have chased the last two weeks. Their strength, too, as McPhee had a hand on Auburn's Newton only to have the big quarterback shake free…something very few should be able to do to this big Dog. State's only sack at LSU came on a safety blitz with S Zach Smith coming clean to bag Jefferson.
But, "I think our pass rush is improving," Diaz said. "I think we doubled the amount of times we hit the quarterback than we did vs. Auburn. That's what we have to keep showing them. Week by week we're getting closer, the plays are getting better. We just have to show them the improvement and that the plays will come."
MEANWHILE, BACK ON OFFENSE…: After hanging 49 points and 569 yards on Memphis, the MSU offense has mustered only 514 combined yards and three touchdowns in their two SEC outings. All three scores have been on the ground, too. Mullen likes to lead with the rushing attack, too, but also expects more from his quarterbacks. Certainly State is going to struggle when the passers throw six interceptions and no touchdowns in a pair of SEC games.
Mullen still believes starter Chris Relf and alternate Tyler Russell have what it takes to make plays in the passing game. He's been showing video evidence to each this week.
"When they look at it they see the opportunities that are there for them. Obviously it's not all their fault," Mullen said, referring to protection problems and erratic receiving. Then again, "Some of it growing pains, sometimes you have to throw the football away."
Make that, the self-assurance to throw the ball away rather than try to make a dangerous play. It begs the obvious question about quarterback confidence after their last two struggling showings. "I don't know if they lack confidence in their abilities," Mullen countered. "It's more understanding the offense and developing as a player and making good decisions. When they look at it on film, they see they're not very far off."
FAMILIAR FACE: Georgia head coach Mark Richt and State defensive aide Diaz have a history; back in 1998-99 Richt was offensive coordinator at Florida State when Diaz was breaking into the business as a defensive graduate assistant. Even then, Richt saw something in his younger cohort.
"Manny was in my opinion just a very cerebral guy, very smart," Richt said today on the SEC teleconference. "He understood the game, he had great ideas, as a young coach he looked like he could handle any responsibility handed to him." Richt was even prompted by questions about their history to recall this morning's chapel where the theme came from Proverbs; specifically about being noticed for good performance.
"Everything he was given he's done a great job at and he was able to move into the position he's in right now," Richt said.
Such feelings are mutual, according to Diaz. "One thing I respect is the class he leads a program with, that's how he was when I knew him a long time ago. Steady as she goes, that's his forte, and people love him for it…sometimes they don't but to me that is what you want! You want the steady hand in a job that important."
INJURY UPDATE: Mullen said today that tight ends Marcus Green (right knee) and Brandon Henderson (left knee) both reported to the trainers this morning, to check on their gimpy knees after they did running work during Tuesday's practice.
"They're going to go out and run again today," Mullen said. "They're both going to end up being game-time decisions for both of them, and we're going to limit them in practice and see where they are Saturday."