Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Junior Linebacker Suits ‘Star’ Spot in 2016 Defensive Scheme

There’s no sentimental or historical reason. J.T. Gray’s motivation for changing jersey numbers is simpler. “It just looked right on me!”

That’s it. Mississippi State’s linebacker figured, so to speak, that #12 fit him better than did the #45 worn the past two seasons. Now after a few days of training camp, he’s even happier with the choice.

“I’ll be looking at myself on film and go ooooh, that looks good!”

Uniform aside…what matters is how good Gray has looked here in preseason. He has, by all accounts. Good enough that the spring promotion to first team at strong-side linebacker has stuck. A week into August and #12 is steady with the number-ones.

Oh, but with a different title. It’s not just an ‘outside’ or ‘strong-side’ spot in new coordinator Peter Sirmon’s terminology. It’s a ‘star’. Not that Gray is too concerned on titles, but…

…“It’ll float the boat!” he said.

More to the point Gray likes how the star is supposed to go on the attack more than did the ‘sam’ in 2015’s schemes. “It changes my role by rushing the offensive linemen, rushing the quarterback.” Which hints at State’s defense wanting to force the action rather than react.

Gray certainly looks the part, whatever the digits. The 6-0, 197 pound frame harks back more to say Matthew Wells, another fast Dog who could attack backs and cover inside receivers. Now compared to the spring roster Gray is only a pound or two larger.

Realistically? He’s feeling bigger and stronger, and not just from a hard summer in the weightroom. “I’ve been eating good! We’ve got guys who go to cardio club, and guys like me who can eat anything they want!”

It’s easy to forget now that last fall Gray feasted on runners and receivers. Playing in rotation at sam with Zach Jackson, he tallied 65 tackles—fourth on the defense and tops among non-starters. This precocious production came from Gray being activated as a true 2014 freshman when Dez Harris went down with injury.

Now Gray is the veteran. Just, one who is learning a new overall scheme. So is everyone else on the defense of course. Really we should say ‘schemes’ because this will be a very multiple approach under Sirmon.

“The plays from the 3-4 to the 4-3, we’re all getting the hang of it,” Gray said. Most obviously, there is the new ‘viper’ position played by either a defensive end or outside linebacker. Not Gray himself, yet…

…“It’s really like the same position. The viper is just down on the line more than we are.” In fact star and viper are to play off each other as Gray explains it. “Yeah, for different situations in the game in every case. Like, if I play ‘will’ and it will be complementary to a star. And the star can be complementary to mike linebacker.”

And so on and so forth. That brings up a key point. Sirmon truly does expect every Bulldog on the field to have a good idea what everyone else is doing. That applies double for linebackers and safeties. It also means a lot, lot more time studying the playbook.

“It really does,” said Gray. “You really have to think more. But if you learn and read the plays and read your film, and what you need to do that’s necessary, then you’ll make those plays.”

Sermon has certainly pushed the right linebacker buttons so far. “He wants to attack more, and compete more with the offense.” Hopefully happier ‘backers are faster learners, then. There’s also the pure competitiveness necessary simply to stay first-team this fall.

Because, there are a lot of able and willing linebackers on this roster. Gray agrees that some of Sirmon’s scheming isn’t so much tactical as practical, how to get more of his best Dogs on the field.

“You’re right. We’ve got Gerri (Green) on that outside, Riche (Brown) inside. Richie’s smart and Gerri’s strong and fast. And you’ve got Leo (Lewis) the heard hitter. Then me, you’ve got Trevor (Jung), ‘Dre Ward, all the linebackers. We have to pack a punch.”

And now, when Gray delivers his punch, he’ll look better in the process, right? OK, much as he enjoys #12, the junior is a realist.

“A number is just a number. It’s a player that makes the number.”

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