Steve Robertson -

Three-Year Linebacker Gets New Shot at Old Job in This Dog Defense

He doesn’t have a spiffy position title this year. Doesn’t need one, either. J.T.Gray is just fine with the safety label.

Even finer to be listed here, period. “Oh, man, back at home, where I was in high school,” Gray said. “And great to be there.”

This is an old home for Mississippi State’s senior. Gray hasn’t worked with the defensive back group since walking onto campus way back in 2014. When he did get on Scott Field for real that same fall it was as an outside linebacker, where Gray has worked ever since.

Or up until early March when the spring team assembled. There were the linebackers in one group…and here were the safeties with #12 among them. Nobody had changed jerseys. Gray had just changed jobs.

Sort of.

“Really with the package that we have, like a 4-2-5, it’s basically a ‘star’ from last year,” Gray explained. “But I’ll be more in coverage more often and dropping back into the deep-thirds more often.”

Without that ‘star’ title of course. Or without the same strong-side linebacker responsibilities. Similar, just not the same, as new coordinator Todd Grantham and safeties coach Ron English shift Gray’s emphasis from support to coverage.

“Safety is cover more in space. You’re not in the box, more often. You’re covering wideouts and people more in my weight range. So now that I’m strong and I’ve got speed and skills in coverage to do that.”

That weight range is 202 pounds for now. The coverage range?

Well, remember, this was an elite defensive back prospect out of high school…or schools as he prepped in both Mississippi and Arizona and them back again. Hmmm, see any trend there? Regardless, there aren’t a lot of true safeties taking the field this fall who have invested three years into muscling-up for linebacker duties and then switched into covering the center-field.

Linebacker strength and safety speed? “I like it,” Gray said. “I love it.”

“I mean being in the box helped me out physically from the three years that I played it. So I know I can be more hands-on with the receivers while I’m re-routing them. (And) I can handle running backs.”

Gray handled that outside linebacker job well enough. He lost his redshirt as a true ’14 frosh when injury took down a starter and played in six games. A year later Gray rotated at strong-side and collected 65 tackles, fourth-best on the entire team and tops for any non-starter.

Last year, when State switched the general scheme under one-year coordinator Peter Sirmon (and the position got the ‘star’ label) Gray again shone. He started ten times with his alternate DeAndre Ward getting the other three starts, and was third in tackles at 71 stops.

Not surprisingly Gray was most productive when he did start, averaging 6.4 tackles. Four times he scored eight total stops, and he saved his best for the most important game. Of his eight tackles at Oxford, seven were unassisted as Mississippi State routed the Rebels.

So nobody doubts Gray would still be a completely competent linebacker. He’s just happier to end the college career in an even more versatile role displaying his full range of skills.

“Yeah, I’m very productive at it. And it showed on the film that I can show to the NFL scouts I can play inside the box as well.”

Grantham and English just figure for 2017 purposes Gray is most useful as a safety. Never mind there are proven players here, returning starters Mark McLaurin and Brandon Bryant. Or newer and/or younger talents Jaquarius Landrews, C.J. Morgan, Brian Cole, and wicked hitter Johnathan Abram.

This late-career move comes at a great time for Gray because the new defensive regime could care less about resumes and depth charts. As of March 2017 there are no starters, backups, alternates, whatever per Gray. “We’re just rotating right now. So it’s really not a competition. We’re just weeding out who is going to play what.

“I mean we’ve all got strengths and weaknesses. And we help each other with what we’re weak on and what we’re strong on. It’s really a give and take.” With the understanding come kickoff everybody wants to take one of those starting jobs, or at least the nickel-safety spot.

A twist is Gray goes back to safety in time to meet English. Who, all agree, has pumped up the practice pressure this week. Installation is over. It’s time to show this coach the goods.

The hotter and louder English gets, the better as far as Gray is concerned. “I mean I like my coach being on me. That means he’s very interested in me playing. And I want somebody to push me every play, every snap of the ball just to go hard.”

“I love him because he’s really a business guy. He’s all about business. Like you’ve got make plays on the field. If you’re not making plays, you’re not on the field.”

Which would be an awful fate for a senior. Speaking of which, Gray doesn’t begrudge missing out on redshirt experience. “I mean, that’s life, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.” What he must now do is rise to the top at a refreshed position…

…and in a revived Bulldog defense. Practice reports say Grantham’s gang really cut it loose this past week at the expense of the offense, a good sign from a group which struggled badly last fall. Good enough sign to have Gray predicting big things.

Especially, he said, if opponents base expectations on what they saw in 2016. “I feel like we’re top-ten right now. Where we’re coming from, they don’t know what’s coming.

“It’s time to step up because everybody is not young any more. Last year it was a young team. Now everybody has experience and we’ve got big standards we’ve got to uphold.”

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