Tuesday Bulldog Football Notebook

He would be eager enough to get this senior season started, on the home field no less. Yet K.J. Wright can count three items of extra motivation when Memphis comes to town this weekend. They come in the form of three faces familiar to the Bulldog linebacker.

Most obviously, a pair of Tigers who began their college careers wearing a Mississippi State uniform. Linebacker Jamon Hughes played for State in the 2006 and '07 seasons, starting at middle linebacker against Kentucky that latter year among his 13 games participating. He was fourth on the team in tackles in fact, but a spring incident involving several Dogs resulted in Hughes leaving State and finding a new start at Memphis. After the sit-out transfer season he started four of the dozen games played in '09 with 87 tackles, best on the Tiger defense.

Robinson played in 11 games as a true 2008 freshman, including a five-catch debut at Louisiana Tech. He had a dozen receptions for 125 yards, and returned both kickoffs and punts as an alternate. He transferred to Copiah-Lincoln CC last season, signed with Memphis, and goes into this weekend listed as the alternate ‘Z' receiver.

Bulldog senior Wright is eager to see Hughes back on Scott Field, even in a different uniform. "We've been talking on Facebook the other day, and he said he's ready for us," Wright reports. "So we'll see. There's been a little trash talking but he's real excited. Just like I'm excited, we're just ready to see what is going to happen on Saturday."

And what sort of trash is Hughes hauling to town Saturday? "He told me he wanted to lead the nation in tackles!" Wright smiles. "So we've got to see what he's going to do." Wright does salute his former teammate as a quality ‘backer, though, and says if Hughes had hung around he would likey be starting in the middle with Wright and Chris White as outside Dogs in the 4-3 set.

Oh, and Wright has one more old acquaintance to renew. He played one year high school ball at Olive Branch with Tiger Cannon Smith, who just this week was officially named starting quarterback. Smith wasn't at OBHS long, and then beginning college play at Miami in 2008 before coming back home.

Naturally, Wright hopes to do more than shake hands with the old prep teammate. He'd prefer a more closer re-acquaintance somewhere in the Tiger backfield, getting his senior season sack total started in style.

Wright had just two official sacks as a junior, working at strong-side linebacker, but 6.5 stops for losses and 82 total tackles. That was second on the squad to Jamar Chaney, and while there was some thought of moving Wright to the open middle LB slot new coordinator Manny Diaz likes lining the 6-4, 250-pounder up on a side. Generally, a side with no tight end, which clearly indicates the game's plan.

"The switch to weak-side has been real good," says Wright. "Coach Diaz told me it will be a real good position for me to make a bunch of plays for this style of defense, other than the sam. It will be perfect for me to make a bunch of tackles for losses and sacks."

Meanwhile Chris White has fit into the middle slot without a missed step, which Wright said also applies to learning the different ways Diaz wants to attack offenses. Not that predecessor Carl Torbush believed in passive defense, but Diaz takes aggression to a new level for these Dogs. It suits their skills and styles alike, Wright says.

"It's been a real smooth transition. Because it's just football and we had a lot of time to adjust to the changes. So it's been real good." By the way, Wright explains, just because he isn't in the very center of things at weak-side, it doesn't keep he and classmate White from staying in close technical touch in Diaz's scheming.

"Usually the sam is outside the box, and the mike and will are usually side-by-side. So me and Chris are always talking, for ever play we tell each other formations and what to look for. It's just better for us to communicate with each other being right by each other."

And what of the third Dog in this ‘backer pack? Though Diaz has taken a pair of former safeties and put them in linebacking roles, the State defense has not lost muscle. It has just gained mobility, with either Emmanuel Gatling or Cameron Lawrence developing in this hybrid sort of role. It's been a close camp contest that Gatling, the senior, appears to have won over soph Lawrence. Though, both should see plenty opening-night action.

Wright is confident with either of them on the field.

"Oh I'm real impressed with Gatling. He's been here a long time, he's a walk-on senior and right now he's real smart in what he does. He's teaching Cam what to do and I believe it's going to work out good for him."

What is working out very well for Wright, and White too, is the added duties they've accepted. As the old Dogs in both this unit and the entire defense they are expected, ordered really, to set a tone on and off the field. Wright welcomes the perceived promotion.

"I've been leading since my junior year. And since it's my senior year everybody is looking up to me, they expect me to do the right things and put them in the right position. So me and Chris, we just work on our leadership and everybody looking up to us to do the job."

An interesting job at that. If opening night wasn't a big enough deal, Mississippi State has had to hustle for any clues about Memphis' gameplans under new management. Wright said that the Dog defense has been looking at Texas-El Paso where new Tiger offensive coordinator Eric Price worked…from 2004-07. That's a measure of how much scrounging State's has done this summer.

"We don't have much film to watch," Wright says. "But we've just got to worry about ourselves. We know how to handle offenses so we do our part and everything will work out fine." Fine being defined as the sort of winning season Wright enjoyed as a 2007 freshman, with SEC success and a bowl trip to cap that year…to Memphis' Liberty Bowl ironically enough. Post-season play is this team's open ambition in year-two under Mullen, and the campaign opens now.

At last, according to Wright.

"Everybody's ready. We've been talking about this for a long time, and I told the boys this morning in the weightroom we've got to have a good week of practice because we've got to start off strong."

NOTEBOOK: The Bulldogs practiced Monday, which is usually a day-off in game-week, as Mullen gave them Sunday-off…Though practice was closed, contacts in the program say quarterback Chris Relf was able to participate with few issues caused by the swollen finger he hurt last week. Relf reportedly banged the digit against DE Pernell McPhee's helmet in a Wednesday drill, and was excused from Fan Day. Mullen is not counting Relf among the injured this week, signaling that the veteran quarterback is to be ready for opening night…State's tentative two-deep for opening week has either Chad Bumphis or Brandon Heavens starting at ‘H' receiver. Though that seems somewhat odd given Bumphis' superb freshman season, he is also part of the kickoff return team, and should he have a long return or take a hard hit on that opening play classmate Heavens is able to ‘start' on the first snap if needed…

Mississippi State will practice this afternoon in full game-preparation mode as the Dogs settle into the sort of game-week routine that will dominate the next three months. Coach Dan Mullen was to meet with media after Tuesday's practice, the last availability until Saturday post-game. There will be an update filed this evening with any news or notes…Mullen's call-in show begins this Thursday, September 2, at 7:00.

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