Rookie seen in K.C. LB role quickly

Spag­nola points to ‘vi­o­lent hit­ter’ Gay tak­ing out­side spot

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NFL - BY SAM MCDOW­ELL The Kansas City Star

Last Septem­ber, as a newlook Kansas City Chiefs’ de­fense per­formed only marginally dif­fer­ent from the old one, first-year co­or­di­na­tor Steve Spag­n­uolo drilled the ba­sics re­peat­edly. Walk-throughs, or men­tal reps, as he called them, be­came his pri­mary tool.

As part of the in­stal­la­tion of a new sys­tem, the teach­ing el­e­ments can be mun­dane and dif­fi­cult to keep a player’s in­ter­est.

Now? He’d kill for the lux­ury of the walk-throughs — for a few play­ers in par­tic­u­lar, the rook­ies.

The Chiefs be­lieve sec­on­dround pick Wil­lie Gay Jr., for ex­am­ple, can play an im­me­di­ate role on a de­fense that im­proved con­sid­er­ably as the sea­son went on. With­out the reps — even those of the men­tal va­ri­ety — that’s just an ed­u­cated guess based on col­lege film, phys­i­cal at­tributes and video con­ver­sa­tions.

“I don’t know that you know what you have un­til you get him here,” Spag­n­uolo said. “Brett Veach and his staff did a ter­rific job iden­ti­fy­ing him. We’re glad we have him. We’re ex­cited for what we think he can do. But un­til we get him out there, we won’t re­ally know.”

The col­lege tape at Mis­sis­sippi State, along with mea­sur­ables such as a 4.46 time in the 40-yard dash, sold the Chiefs’ front of­fice and coach Andy Reid. Sold Spag­n­uolo, too.

The reck­less na­ture of his style stood out, a com­fort­able fit along safety Tyrann Mathieu and de­fen­sive end Frank Clark.

“I mean things jump off the chart in re­gards to speed. He’s a vi­o­lent hit­ter, which we love,” Spag­n­uolo said. “Hope­fully, all those things trans­fer to this league.”

The hope is the trans­fer is im­me­di­ate.

Chiefs gen­eral man­ager

Brett Veach said Gay is ca­pa­ble of play­ing any of the three line­backer spots — SAM (strong side), MIKE (mid­dle) or WILL (weak side).

Spag­n­uolo has de­ter­mined that ini­tially they will line him up on the out­side.

“We think, with­out know­ing right away, or we’re hope­ful, I should say, that he would re­place what Reg­gie Ragland did for us last year,” Spag­n­uolo said. “I pref­ace that by say­ing we won’t know that un­til we get him in. I think we’re a long way away. You guys get it. He comes from col­lege into the pros — try­ing to get him up to speed takes a lit­tle while.”

Ragland played 235 snaps last sea­son — on the field mostly for early-down and run-heavy sit­u­a­tions — but signed a one-year free-agent deal with Detroit in March.

The Chiefs bring back two starters in the line­backer group, with An­thony Hitchens and Damien Wil­son. Ben Nie­mann played 401 snaps a year ago.

But Spag­n­uolo has been un­afraid to make al­ter­ations. The Chiefs be­gan 2019 with Hitchens, Wil­son and Dar­ron Lee be­fore Lee lost his spot af­ter just two games, prompt­ing Wil­son to shift from SAM to WILL.

Gay projects po­ten­tial to be an ev­ery-day player rather than a sit­u­a­tional one. He can cover, which would fill per­haps the de­fense’ most glar­ing need. And he can play the run. Chiefs spe­cial teams co­or­di­na­tor Dave Toub also sees him as a reg­u­lar mem­ber of the spe­cial teams units.

In any nor­mal year, late May would be too early to turn the op­ti­mism any rigid de­ter­mi­na­tions. In 2020, amid the coro­n­avirus pan­demic pre­vent­ing on-field work, it seems even ear­lier.

“If feels like 2011 when we had the lock­out when I was in St. Louis. Now, we’re way ahead of that be­cause we have all these Zoom meet­ings,” Spag­n­uolo said.

“But I think Wil­lie Gay will be­gin there [on the out­side]. What­ever else we can do with him, we’ll build on that.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ex-Mis­sis­sippi State line­backer Wil­lie Gay Jr. , who has posted a 4.46 time in the 40-yard dash, gives the Chiefs speed in cov­er­age.

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