It’s been well-documented by now, but the pandemic-affected NFL season last year was tough on first-year players. You wouldn’t know it by watching the Kansas City Chiefs; rookies like Clyde Edwards-Helaire, L’Jarius Sneed and Mike Danna made big impacts throughout the year despite a shortened offseason with a lack of in-person practice.
Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. made plays in spots but wasn’t as consistently on the field as the aforementioned players. Instead of hiding the hardship he faced, Gay has been very open about how uncomfortable he was with the scheme and the playbook in his rookie season.
“You have confidence as a player because you’ve been doing it your life,” Gay began to share with reporters on Friday. “But when you can’t prepare like you normally do and you get that new playbook, the confidence level goes down a lot. Having OTAs, having this good training camp we’re at right now, and learning even more, it boosted it up a lot.”
Gay appeared to gain steam as the season went along in 2020. He began to contribute more and see the field more as the season went — but he still struggled to fully digest defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme.
“The playbook was coming on, but slowly last year,” Gay admitted. “You get in those games when you do make a few plays here or there, it helps you, you go ‘okay I feel like I can play with these guys.’”
“This year, I’m ready to make some plays.”
Gay is feeling more confident about everything that comes with playing linebacker in the modern NFL — and it’s translated to the practice field so far in the first week of training camp. Pete Sweeney noted that Gay had two pass breakups on the first day, and Friday, he deflected another pass while covering wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
Gay attributes the play-making directly to feeling better about his knowledge of his responsibility on a play-to-play basis.
“I put that on knowing the details of the play-call,” Gay explained. “Knowing exactly where to drop, just doing my job to a whole different level this year. Last year, I was maybe one step short of it — but this year, just being right on point of everything.”
Gay’s facing as great a challenge in training camp as he’ll face against any opposing NFL team. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has already been dishing out his famous no-look passes this week, which makes it all the more impressive that Gay’s been able to make plays on some of Mahomes’ passes.
Again, his comfort with the scheme allows him to be in the right place — even with Mahomes doing his best to throw defenders off with his eyes.
“In college, you can read the quarterback’s eyes — but in this league, you have to trust your [responsibility],” Gay pointed out. “Last year, I didn’t know the scheme — so I was reading the quarterback’s eyes a lot of the time. This year, you can trust your drop, trust your scheme, trust your play-call, and it’ll put you in the right position every time.”
Confidence is a huge factor in a player’s performance, and it doesn’t sound like Gay lacks any of it this season. He’ll naturally have a bigger role this season in his second year, plus former Chiefs linebacker Damien Wilson departing in free agency.
Gay’s making it clear that he’s ready to take the next step and be a consistently impactful player for the defense. From what we can take away from training camp, he’s backed up that confidence so far with his on-field performance.