Steve Robertson -

Bulldog junior outside linebacker tied for sixth in the SEC in tackles.

Mississippi State has three defenders who have amassed enough tackles to find their names among the top 10 in the Southeastern Conference through three games. While fans would likely expect inside linebackers Richie Brown and Leo Lewis to be near the top, most would likely be surprised to learn that outside backer J.T. Gray leads the team in personnel stops.

J.T. Gray has 24 total tackles and a sack so far on the campaign. Gray's increased production may be the result of a new scheme putting him in a position to make plays, but a solid work ethic and nose for the football have certainly aided the Clarksdale, Mississippi native in his quest to be elite.

"Right now, I just feel more comfortable on the field," Gray shared. "I know all of my calls and all of my checks. I just know where I am supposed to be on each play before the snap now. I'm flying to the ball on every play and if you are around the ball, then good things are going to happen."

Relentless effort is a Bulldog creed, so when first year defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon showed up, the Mississippi State players soon learned that their new defensive boss had similar feelings about the game of football. Gray reports that Sirmon has preached a gang tackling philosophy from day one.

"Coach Sirmon is always talking about getting eleven hats to the ball," Gray explained. "He has been preaching and preaching that and installing that in our heads. It's like if one guy shoots his gun, then you need ten more guys shooting their guns too."

With the move to the 3-4 defensive alignment, Gray appears to have found a home. While the talented junior played last season in the 4-3 scheme, the Peter Sirmon defense appears to fit Gray and his skill set a lot better.

"I am now at the highest level of comfortable," Gray shared. "I like the defense and I spend hours everyday in the film room getting ready to play. I am really working hard every week to get ready for the game each and every week."

While Sirmon brought a new scheme to Starkville, the talented coach also brought some real credibility. When the former NFL linebacker speaks, his players listen.

"I am willing to buy in, because everything he's talking about he's already been through it and done it," Gray said of Sirmon. "He has seen it all through his experience as a player or through coaching. He knows what he is doing and I listen to him about everything."

Sirmon will get the chance to share a rather unique experience with his players this weekend when the Bulldogs travel to Foxboro, Massachusetts for a regular season non-conference game on a neutral field. While Sirmon has played at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots, the Bulldogs have not.

"I am excited about playing up there this weekend," Gray said. "UMASS likes to run vertical. They have a guy #23 (Andy Isabella) that they like to use a lot on the outside. We have to key in on him and have him locked down."

The Bulldogs enter the game after playing perhaps their best half of defensive football in the second half last weekend on the road at LSU. Gray believes that the momentum from last weekend has carried over this week.

"The first two games, we played good in the first half, but last week against LSU it was more about the second half," Gray said. "We just need to put two halves together and play four full quarters, then we will be a complete team. It's really an effort thing. We can't look at the scoreboard or worry about the clock. We just have to keep balling."

The Minutemen of UMASS will be the second non-conference game on the 2016 slate for Mississippi State. Following this weekend's road trip, the Bulldogs will enjoy a bye week before welcoming Auburn to town in a huge game for both teams. Gray has mixed feelings about the timing of the bye week.

"You get a break next week for your injuries and to just get your body right. We can go all out in this game," Gray said. "It's early for a bye week though. You would to have it a little later, but it's coming next week. We just have to be ready for the rest of the season."

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