Rookie seen in K.C. LB role quickly
Spagnola points to ‘violent hitter’ Gay taking outside spot
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.”
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.