It's the conference that makes you better

By Joe Fortenbaugh and Wes Bunting:

“The whole game the crowd was into it. Their fans were getting crunk, our fans were getting crunk…I couldn’t even hear my friend on the side of me talking.”

That’s how Florida Gators safety Major Wright describes his first trip to Tiger Stadium — also known as the Snake Pit — to play LSU in a nationally televised game on Oct. 7, 2007.

Wright’s sentiments about playing at LSU ring true for several other Southeastern Conference stadiums as well. Let’s face it. The SEC — which has produced more first-round picks (74) since 1999 than any other conference — is the premier battleground in a sport where the fans’ passion and intensity are second to none.

And it’s that type of atmosphere and level of competition that drive players like Wright to be better.

We had the opportunity to podcast with Wright this week, and when he didn’t have us laughing with his movie reviews (we both feel the guy has a career as a critic ahead of him), he was describing life in Gainesville and what it’s like to play in the SEC — a conference that’s more like a fraternity for the players who are talented enough to compete there.

“It makes every practice intense,” Wright said about being under the microscope in the SEC. “It makes you want to go out and do better and prove that we are the top team. That’s what keeps you motivated and that’s what keeps you driving.”

With big-name safeties Eric Berry (Tennessee), Taylor Mays (USC) and Earl Thomas (Texas) entering this year’s draft, the 5-11, 206-pound Wright tends to fly below the radar. That’s just the nature of the business, even for a guy who went 35-6 in three years at Florida, won a national championship in 2008 and recorded 165 tackles, eight interceptions and four forced fumbles during his collegiate career.

“That’s what drives me,” Wright said about being overlooked.

But here’s the thing you have to love about him: He rarely got a chance to relax playing at Florida.

One of the most important elements in scouting a college prospect is evaluating the level of competition he faced during the season. It’s an element that will help distinguish a standout quarterback who plays in the Big Ten from a standout quarterback who plays in Division III.

Wright didn’t just face elite talent on Saturdays; he also faced it all week long in practice.

“Percy Harvin. That’s probably one of the best players I’ve ever played against,” Wright said. “The things he did in practice was kind of off the chart.”

Harvin was named a second-team Associated Press All-American in 2008, was a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings last April and won the 2009 NFL offensive rookie of the year award last season.

You spend your weeks practicing against that, and then spend your Saturdays competing against guys like LSU’s Brandon LaFell, Alabama’s Julio Jones and Cincinnati’s Mardy Gilyard, and suddenly you’re looking at a pretty impressive resume.

You’re also looking at a guy who’s battle-tested.

Follow us on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh @WesBunting

Click HERE to check out more player interviews from the NFP.

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