If you were watching the NFL Draft simulcast on ESPN or NFL Network, you quickly heard some of the problems Gay faced during his college career. The linebacker faced an eight-game suspension for cheating on an exam and was also involved in an altercation with his quarterback.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid addressed those concerns head on when he met with the media late Friday night.
“I think you heard some of the commentators mentioned that he was a first-round valued player that had a couple issues there at the college level,” explained Reid, “one of which might have gotten blown out of perspective, but we really did our homework on everything there. Brett (Veach), again, did a great job on that, along with his guys. His scouts dug in on that to find out exactly what the issues were and how the kid handled them. I’ve got a close relationship with their head coach there. Well, actually, he was the head coach there. He’s now at Florida.
“He recruited him, so he had an opportunity to talk to me about him, what kind of kid he is, kind of the background on him, where he came from, what he’s all about family-wise. We felt very comfortable taking him at that spot. It also helps to have the people in the locker room that we do with Tyrann (Mathieu) and Frank (Clark). They’ll take him under their wings – Hitch (Anthony Hitchens), that whole linebacking room is a tight group. They’ll take him in and make sure he’s in good hands there. And teach him the right way, the way we do things in the National Football League.”
As a sophomore, Gay recorded 48 stops, 5.5 for loss, five sacks and two interceptions in 13 games (six starts). With limited time as a junior (five games), his numbers dipped to 28 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one interception and one pass breakup.
Gay said he cried for four days straight when he learned of his suspension.
“I prayed, I talked to my mom, I talked to a lot of people,” he said from his hometown of Starkville, Mississippi. “I said, this can either make me or break me. I sucked it up, and if you never knew I was suspedned, you would have thought I was going in every day to get ready to play Alabama, and I made sure I kept that mentality — made sure I just was me. I still love football, the love isn’t going to change ever. It only got stronger. Fuel to the fire — it just made me hungrier.”
From Gay’s pespective, it sounded like the Chiefs personnel staff fully vetted the situation.
“They asked me about everything, the quarterback situation, the suspension for the academic thing and it’s not like I’m going to say it wasn’t my fault because it was something that I could’ve avoided easily. I dealt with the consequences of it. It made me a better man, it made me a better person. It helped me appreciate the game of football. It made me really find the love of football even more. Now I’ve grown from it and I’m ready to just play ball.”
The fact Gay only took part in five games last season might have actually played into the Chiefs’ hands in acquiring him with such a late draft pick.
“We had our eyes on Willie when the day started,” said general manager Brett Veach. “He was a guy that we circled. Because he was suspended and there wasn’t a large volume of work this year on his tape, we didn’t know where the league would be. We were certainly high on him at the get-go. Coach Spags (Steve Spagnuolo) and Matt House really like this guy too. He ran faster than most of these secondary guys out there at 4.4, 245 pounds, 39 vertical, 11.4 broad jump.
“I think if this guy comes back to school next year, plays a full season and is healthy, you’re looking at a first-round pick. The guy has tremendous upside. The guy can play SAM, he can play MIKE or WILL. I think he’ll have a chance to come in right away, get with our staff and bounce in there at MIKE, bounce in there at SAM linebacker. So, just a guy that’s super talented and we’re fired up to get.”
The Chiefs have somewhat of a crowded linebacker room at the moment, with Hitchens, Damen Wilson, Ben Niemann and Dorian O’Daniel all vying for playing time. Reggie Ragland’s offseason departure to the Detroit Lions — and Gay’s versatility — should boost his chances to play early.
“Spags loves Willie,” Reid added. “(Linebackers coach Matt) House knows all the guys that have coached Willie, and he’s really close with those guys. He knows all the ins and outs of the kid, what the kid is all about. Spags loved the way he played, he’s reckless. He fits right in with Tyrann and Frank and that whole group on defense that cuts it loose and gets after people. He didn’t grow up far from Chris (Jones). He’s right in there, that same kind of neighborhood. Small town guy, very, very small town. The head coach, the old head coach – the one that’s at Florida now, coach (Dan) Mullen – he told me that he went on a recruiting trip to go see him, and they got stuck in the mud. He lives way out in the county and got stuck in the mud, he had to get a tow truck to pull him out.
“You watch the tape, and he’s one of those guys that you go ‘Who is that guy?’ I mean, he’s making plays all over the place. The linebackers coach, I know loved him. Britt (Reid) was part of that, too. Britt and House kind of had him and he was their guy. They loved what they saw. Brett brings little stacks to those guys of different players. They said, ‘Man this guy here just plays. Wow, he’s a good one.’ So, that’s where we’re at.”
“Whenever you have a linebacker that can run a 4.4 and can run like Willie Gay, that’s always a good thing when it comes to linebackers having success in the league,” said Johnson. “The comparison comes from being an athletic linebacker, and I was that athletic linebacker for the Chiefs. For them to get him early like they did, this shows the amount of respect and confidence in this young player. Even though the production is not crazy high in college, it’s the potential. When he gets to the Chiefs, if you could have a coach that can dive in and see what you do best and just develop your craft, man I think the sky’s the limit for this kid.”
Gay said that based upon conversations with the Chiefs, he felt strongly that he would land in Kansas City.
“I heard rumors of two to four so anywhere in that range I was ready for,” he said. “Honestly, I was telling my family that my phone interviews with the Chiefs went so well the past few weeks that I said, ‘They can’t pass on me twice’.”
“They took a chance on me and right when they called me, I was in shock. I was like, ‘It’s time. I’m ready to work’. So, I’m ready.”