Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. is expected to return this week against the San Francisco 49ers after serving his four-game NFL suspension. Gay was actually able to return to the team’s facility to sit in on meetings on Monday, October 3. He became eligible to take the field on Wednesday — which he did.
Spotted in Thursday’s media look, the third-year linebacker has now practiced two days in a row.
“It’s been good having [Gay] back in here,” said Nick Bolton, who had to manage bringing along more inexperienced players during Gay’s absence. “[Gay’s a] player that can play great football for us on defense — that’s kind of what it all is about. [Darius] Harris did a hell of a job of filling in for him. Willie’s a little different in terms of his speed and how we use him. So it will be good to have him back. I’m excited for him... it’s been great to get him back in the building.”
The Chiefs’ defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, agreed with Bolton’s take on Harris, who became the “next man up” at weak-side linebacker in Gay’s absence. Harris compiled 29 tackles (18 solo), 1.0 sack and one fumble recovery in his four spot starts.
“I will say this,” started Spagnuolo, “I thought Darius Harris did a nice job fitting in there. Everybody has their strengths and their weaknesses and their assets, and Darius brought his assets with how hard he plays and how cerebral he is, and he’s in the right place, and he works well with Nick.”
Bolton explained that he did not really learn a lot about Harris. Instead, Harris’ play brought him reassurance. Speaking fondly of Harris, he recalled the 2021 preseason — when both he and Harris were still trying to earn playing time.
At that time, veteran linebacker Anthony Hitchens was dealing with an injury.
“Hitch went down, and I filled in for Ben [Niemann],” said Bolton. “We were going ones and twos. Before the ones, we were actually backups when they went down with injury. He came in, he actually played the MIKE, so we were flipped. But I knew he was going to come in and be great for us because I knew how it was back in training camp last year — communicating, helping me out, and so when it’s flipped, I’m helping him out now.
“We got the constant communication we already had established last year in training camp and then on to this year. I knew he was going to do everything he did coming in for us. Again, he played spectacular — lights out — and hopefully, we can keep him on the field sometimes.”
If anything, the Chiefs may now know their depth at linebacker is stronger than they once thought. But getting the starter back — especially up against a team with explosive weapons such as 49ers wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle — is a welcome development.
“Willie... he runs around, he makes explosive plays,” said Spagnuolo. “He’s dynamic and he loves playing, so he brings a lot of energy, which we love, so I think he’s going to bring all those things... He’s a ball of energy, so he’s going to be 100 miles an hour no matter what.
“But he’s rusty. He hasn’t been in there for a month, so he’ll have to knock some rust off, but we need to do that. We need to get him out there and get rolling.”
As Bolton would say a few times as he talked about him in the locker room, Gay brings the “juice” the Chiefs' defense might have been missing as the team went 2-2 during Gay’s suspension.
“Juice, man,” said Bolton pointedly. “He sets the tempo of how practice is ran. He flies around to the football, communicating, echoing, talking aloud. Using hand signals, being verbal, all that type of stuff. He helps me a lot in terms of getting the front set, being my echo and helping me relay stuff to the secondary as well, so having that guy back on defense is special.”
With Gay not being made available to the media, Bolton was also there to pass along a note about how fired up he is to be back.
“He wore his mouthpiece all day [Wednesday],” smiled Bolton. “That gives you a little idea of how excited he is. That s—t right there. He’s excited and juiced up. [He’s] been waiting for this a long time, to get back on the field with his brothers.
“Again, it’s like a kid looking outside at recess through the blinds when everyone else is playing; that’s been him, so he’s excited to get back out here and play.”