As a starting part, he means. Having put cleats on Scott Field for real as a true freshman, J.T. Gray now sees opportunity to be more than a young backup linebacker. He has set sights on becoming a regular for 2015. Perhaps even play the first defensive snap in Mississippi State games.
“The preseason has been going well,” Gray said. “I’ve been practicing hard, working for a spot on defense. Right now I’ve got Zach in front of me, he’s a really good mentor. I’m learning from him.”
That would be Zachary Jackson, himself working to secure his own status at an outside ‘backer spot. A senior, the elder State-sman of the linebacker meeting room, Jackson intends to hold the first-team role he took during spring practices.
With all due respect to his elder, and genuine gratitude for Jackson’s mentoring…Gray won’t just meekly fall into second place in this depth chart. The competition will continue right up to opening evening, he expects.
“It’s really tight,” said Gray. “I’m really battling for it. But right now he’s got it and I’m just working to get better.”
True sophomore Gray holds an interesting situation going into the second college season. A rightly-touted recruit from Clarksdale High, he was supposed to redshirt last fall and soak up every lesson elders offered. Then Dezmond Harris went down in the win over Auburn.
After a couple weeks figuring how best to back-up Beniquez Brown’s outside position, and which of two gifted rookies to activate…Gray got the call. Beginning against Arkansas he was able to play six games in relief. If his stats—nine tackles, a couple of hurries—were modest, Gray gained so much more than numbers.
He acquired priceless experience. Not all of it was about techniques and tricks of his trade, either.
“Just about the crowd and the atmosphere helped me out a lot. It just got me prepared what it’s going to be like and what it feels like. And I know what they’re going to expect this year and I’m willing to build on that.”
The 2015 twist is Gray finds himself contending not with rising SEC start Brown for snaps. In spring he was switched to the other outside slot, left open as Matthew Wells graduated to professional football. That’s why he now contends with Jackson.
Gray does figure he fits this side of the Bulldog gameplan better. “My speed, my size. My ability to get off blocks and setting the edge,” he said. Yeah, about that size…Wells played at 220 pounds though admittedly looked lighter. Jackson is listed this preseason at 210 and looks bigger.
Here comes Gray, packing a claimed 195 pounds as of this week. But “I’m gaining weight, as soon as camp ends I’ll be around 205.”
Thing is, pure pounds aren’t as exact an indicator of position potential now. Coordinator Manny Diaz probably won’t run a two-team rotation as was the ’14 case. But he will assuredly mix-and-match all around his front-seven. More so at linebackers, it seems so far. More muscle? Here’s redshirt Gerri Green, the guy who Gray was played ahead-of last fall.
Speed? That would seem to suit Gray just fine. Though as he reminds, edge-setting on run plays is one of his strengths. If opponents judge on size alone they stand to be surprised coming at this kid.
Either way, “I love the defense,” Gray said. “It puts everybody there for the perfect play. If one is not making the tackle somebody else is making the tackle. It’s just a team effort.”
By the way, and related to the size situation… It was only for Sunday fun when Gray scored his upset victory at heaving hay bales. Then again, Gray took it sorta seriously. His chief competitor was defending champ Nick James, the defensive tackle with talk to match his 325-pound bulk.
Was Gray surprised at his success? What do you think?
“Oh, I just knew it was coming. I told him in the Multi-Purpose Room I was coming for him! It was a challenge.”
What Gray came with wasn’t sheer strength, something he couldn’t hope to compare to big Nick. “It’s all in the technique! I learned to throw hay when I was in Arizona, in Coolidge.” Using footwork, timing, and technique to make his coaches proud, Gray unleashed a 30-foot throw that edged out James’ best chuck of 29-6.
No, Gray said. He won’t rub it in Monday when the defense assembles for pre-practice instruction. Or not much, huh?
“Just fun and games, right now. He’s going to take it real serious, though!”