Gray Eager For His Orange Bowl Opportunity

Think fans were surprised to see J.T. Gray’s name on an all-conference roster? No more so than the young man himself. “I was very surprised,” said Gray. “I didn’t know I was going to get it this year, only playing five games, half the season.”

Yet that half-season sufficed to draw enough votes for Gray to make the SEC Coaches All-Freshman team for 2014. Which makes the Mississippi State mind boggle a bit at what this precocious kid is capable of as his career progresses. Gray agrees, it’s rewarding to have made such a strong impression in such a short stint.

“I feel good about it. That the coaches, they already know me and I made a name for myself in just five games.”

This name will be heard much more often in coming Mississippi State seasons. And, in his listed position of linebacker. Outside linebacker to be specific, though here in Orange Bowl camp Gray is also working at his original, recruiting position of safety.

So along with an unexpected activation the true freshman is also adjusting to demands of separate spots. “For the last few months it was pretty tough moving to linebacker. But I’ve got the hang of it now. They’re switching me back-and-forth from linebacker to safety and I’m getting the hang of it. I’m a adapting to it pretty well.”

What helps is how safety, in several situations, and outside linebacker aren’t all that disparate positions in the Bulldog defensive scheme. And as State fans have learned, a young safety with enough size often gets ‘promoted’ to the bigger position. Results over the last few seasons have been mixed in some cases, but there are true success stories.

Look at Cameron Lawrence, a quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-safety who ended up a MSU middle linebacker and now is making special teams plays for Dallas in the NFL. By next fall, safety-turned-linebacker Matthew Wells should have graduated to pro football too. Gray can see their examples of course.

So alternating for now is no trouble. “They’re like the same to me. I like both of them. It’s similar.”

For this season though just about all Gray’s snaps came on special teams; kick coverage plays. In fact that is exactly how he made his Bulldog debut, literally when the home game with Arkansas kicked off. Up to then Gray had been redshirting as planned, watching the first seven State contests.

He did have a pretty good indication though that his red shirt was about to turn home-game Maroon.

“When the linebacker before me went down I had a feeling I was going to go,” Gray said. “But when the next linebacker ahead of me got hurt I had no choice, I had to get ready to go.” Which he did, leaving the scout squad for a spot on kickoff coverage club. Yes, he said, the show of faith by State coaches was encouraging…and needed at the time.

“At first I was pretty nervous, skeptical about what I’m going to do. But when I got out there everything just faded away.” That’s one way to put it. Because when Gray got downfield on his very first college play, guess who he hit? Right, the return man, and while safety Kivon Coman got credit for the tackle Gray ended up with an assist. He added another assist before the win was done.

For the season Gray got in on nine total tackles, mostly on kicking plays but with a few as a reserve linebacker. He was credited with a pair of quarterback hurries, too, in Bulldog blowout wins. Still come New Years Eve, it will be on kick plays where Gray gets to ring out the season with some more ringing hits.

Because even before activation the new kid acquired a reputation which live-game play has only strengthened.

“Special teams, they always call my name, are looking up to me, always saying I’ve got to do better and everything. And I pursue my drill and do everything I’m supposed to do. Everybody is just looking forward to me making plays on special teams.”

Come the new year and spring ball Gray will be looked-to for regular defensive duty. He has no regrets about giving up the redshirt season; early varsity duty has given Gray a head-start on 2015. Only playing in a real game fully shows just how different the high school and college games are.

“And you’ve got to do exactly what you’re supposed to do to make the play,” Gray said. “Yeah, I made a couple of mistakes! But I recovered off of them.” Learned from them, too. Certainly during public bowl camp Gray looked more poised, more confident in practice plays. For that matter, he looked darned good physically at an outside ‘backer spot with signee-classmate Gerri Green at middle-man.

The two had a relationship, of sorts, before coming to college. Clarksdale boy Gray and Greenville native Green did cross paths on high school fields. Now these Delta Dogs are the future of State linebacking, even if separated by a varsity season. Nah, Gray said, Green isn’t jealous that his compadre got to play first.

“We just got each other’s back, no matter what.” And Green will make the Orange Bowl trip; he just has to watch Gray play for #7 Mississippi State against #12 Georgia Tech. Gray hopes to make his game worth watching.

“Bowl game expectations? Make every play I can. Every opportunity I get go out there and give my all. I’ve been looking forward to going to Miami and the good weather there.”

Gray equally looks forward to larger responsibilities in the coming season. Being named SEC All-Freshman only increases expectations, after all. That’s all good by Gray.

“Opportunity only knocks once. And you’ve got to answer it soon as it knocks. Because it only knocks once and never comes back again.”

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