Sophomore is Third in Team Tackles Coming Off Bulldog Bench

It’s not an anniversary, exactly. Still it likely has crossed J.T. Gray’s mind that this time a year ago he was nicely settled into a redshirt role. Then came game-eight, and injury…and activation.

Fast forward and here Gray is, a seasoned sophomore with a growing role in Mississippi State’s defense. “I’m improved since the beginning of the season and last year, and it’s been good.”

Gray is good. Just look at the Mississippi State stat sheet. One needn’t go far down the tackles list either, only to #3. It’s true, the alternate strong-side linebacker has 38 stops this season and trails only starting ‘backers Richie Brown (61) and Beniquez Brown (44).

If his lofty statistical status surprises the public, Gray shrugs it off as just business. Nor is there any secret to his successes.

“Getting to the ball, doing my assignment. Doing what I’m supposed to do on time and everything.”

‘Everything’ is a good word for Gray’s work. He might not start—at least not at the moment—but the young linebacker is playing on a pace comparable to the first-teamer tandem. Supporting against the run, filling his end of the action, dropping into coverage, whatever sam-side calls for. Which is, everything.

“You just have to be sound at everything you do,” Gray said. “You’ve got to be solid, and making tackles and doing your assignment, your alignment. You’ve got to be mentally focused and physically ready to achieve the task.”

Gray is clearly ready of body. He’s listed at 196 officially but seems stouter, and says he has added ten pounds since emergency freshman activation. Speaking of which, from the moment Gray was rushed into game-eight action last November 1, more than a few have compared the kid to Matthew Wells as a do-it-all linebacker.

Which Wells was. The thing is, Gray did not have to be converted into a linebacker. He arrived at Mississippi State primed for the position already. Specifically for the strong side which Gray feels he fits just fine.

“My speed, my size, ability to get off blocks, set edge.” Right, the edge, something that in September was a serious Dog defensive concern. Issues have eased through October and at least partly because Gray is getting more snaps than other #2 team linebackers.

His work load is likely to grow even more now. Remember, his activation was a result of Dezmond Harris’ injury during the Arkansas game. Gray had the figurative redshirt replaced with varsity colors and played limited snaps in the next six games.

Now bad luck lightning has struck Harris again, a second college knee injury (third overall) will end his season. “It hurt me when I found out in the locker room,” Gray said. “Because I experienced the same thing in high school, it was just down, downhill. We’re there to lift him up, though.”

Meanwhile, somebody must fill Harris’ role as alternate. Coach Manny Diaz could always activate a redshirt, be it juco transfer Traver Jung or freshman Leo Lewis or somebody. More likely, State will spread Harris’ snaps among already active linebackers though surely a redshirt or two will dress out for numbers. Gray and Zach Jackson can handle an increased load, and DeAndre Ward is already the alternate to Harris backing-up B.Brown on the weak side.

Maybe the larger question is who will line up in Harris’ spot on kicking cover teams? Gray already works on those so changing slots would seem simple enough. Just as simple as Gray’s approach to covering a kick.

“Get ball, see ball!” But getting to the ball means getting on the field, and Gray attests that kick cover practices at State are often more competitive than real games. Especially for all the linebackers who know the fast track to their head coach’s heart is special teams performance.

“Every week we’re neck and neck. Every day, it’s a hard battle,” said Gray. “We push each other to get better in everything. Really we help each other, push each other up.”

Gray’s last redshirt game of 2014 was Mississippi State’s first with a #1 ranking, at Kentucky. So this week will be his debut against a Wildcat club. The matchup looks like one designed to keep a sam-side linebacker busy.

“I’ve seen that it’s some zone they like to run, and it’s not like everybody else’s zone. The running back likes to bounce a lot so we have to contain the edge and keep him inside the box.” Him as in big Boom Williams, whose nickname is no joke. It’s been a few weeks since State faced a really physical running back, and as coordinator Diaz said any Dog defensive gameplan begins with stopping a ground game.

So, “We’ll get a lot of attention from him,” Gray said of Williams. “He’ll get a lot of attention from us, too.”

Along that line Gray will keep getting attention as he develops through his second varsity season. Again, it’s just surprising to see his name third on the team tackling list. But guess what?

“I feel I can do better.”

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