During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, NFL teams were required to conduct the spring offseason virtually. Then training camp was abbreviated. That made it harder for every NFL player on a new team — particularly rookies — to adjust their new schemes and teammates.
It was a lesson that wasn’t lost on Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. After being selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Gay accumulated a checkered snap count history as he struggled to learn the team’s defense during his rookie season.
“It just comes with doing it,” Gay told reporters on Wednesday, following the team’s final training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. “You can watch film and study all day — but until you’re really in the fire, man... you’ve got to get burned a couple of times. And then you learn your lesson. Miss a couple of tackles, miss a few assignments? Then you learn, ‘I’ve got to do this next time. I’ve got to do that.’ But none of this comes without playing more and more.”
Gay said that in 2020, his comfort level with the defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme and playbook kept him from playing at top speed.
“When you’re trying to play a position — but at the same time, you’re thinking about what to do — you can’t move as fast,” he observed. “You can’t go hit this gap as fast. You can’t make a break on the ball as fast. You’ve got to make sure you’re doing everything exactly right. That’s what comes from not knowing it well — because you’re thinking before you’re even acting.”
But after an in-person offseason program and a nearly normal training camp, the second-year linebacker said he’d come a long way.
“Without OTAs last year, it was rough. It was rough,” he recalled. “Having it this year with training camp — on top of a whole season last year — I only can get better at this scheme that we’re running. I definitely came a long way.”
“He’s more comfortable with the scheme, so he can play faster,” head coach Andy Reid noted of Gay. “So you get to see his athletic ability out here — making plays. That’s important. He’s young; he has to stay on top of it. Spags [has] a complicated defense — but if you stay on top of it, you’re going to be good.”
Gay also noted that the continuity from last season has been a factor, too.
“Every year, you get a little more comfortable than the last — especially when you’ve got the same scheme, same play-calls — you can only get better at what you’re doing. It’s helping a lot,” he said.
And he’s continued to form a bond with veteran linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who will still play the MIKE linebacker spot next to Gay — who remains the SAM linebacker — in 2021.
“He’s the leader of the defense — so to be able to play with him a second time in two years, our bond has grown stronger,” Gay said of Hitchens. “Whenever he tells me to do something, I’m doing it right away. Whenever we’re communicating with each other, we understand each other; we know what to do and how to do it when we’re working with each other.”
Unlike his teammates — who played their first preseason game last Saturday night against the San Francisco 49ers — Gay has yet to play a live snap this season. He suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the opening minutes of last season’s Week 17 game against the Los Angeles Chargers — and missed the exhibition opener while on the concussion protocol. So he’s excited about Friday’s preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals.
“I’m excited, man — because, for one, I get to play with those guys again,” he grinned. “I don’t think I’ve played in a game since December when I got hurt — or early January? — so [it’s good] to be able to get out there again, man.”
He said his first goal on Friday night would be to take advantage of his newfound playing speed “to fly around and make plays as much as I can” — and added that he’d like to see much the same from his teammates.
For Gay, it all adds up to the possibility that he could be a big force on the second level of the Kansas City defense in 2021. He said that he just felt tentative last year — even when he was called upon to blitz.
“Maybe I didn’t know exactly where to blitz,” he recalled. “Or whether or not to go under the back [or] over the running back. Or maybe my angles were off a little bit.”
That hesitation led to Gay managing just one sack during his rookie season. But he said that his angles would be exact this year — and he will be “dead on.” So he plans on notching quite a few more.
“I’m trying to get like seven of them this year, man,” he said with a smile. “[I’m] taking advantage of every opportunity.”