As the news broke of a suspension for Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay, the answer for who will play in his place was not clear.
Nick Bolton is the still the leader of the linebacker group, but the rest of the position features rookie players — or players inexperienced in the system.
The only linebacker that avoids both of those categories is Darius Harris, and it’s likely a big reason why head coach Andy Reid was confident sharing that Harris would be the player to directly substitute for Gay starting in Week 3.
“Darius Harris can fill in there,” Reid told reporters after Wednesday’s practice. “We’ve got people there, but Darius has a chance to step in there.”
Harris has been around the organization since he was signed as an undrafted free agent following the 2019 NFL Draft. He progressed from a practice squad player, to a special-teams contributor in 2021, to (now) starting as one of the two linebackers that will share the field for the majority of the defensive snaps.
Harris’ progression really stood out in the preseason, which was noticed by the coaching staff.
“He’s coming off a good preseason,” coach Reid pointed out. “He kind of knows everything. He’s a sharp kid. He’s tough, has a good concept of the defense, so I think he’ll do a nice job. (He’s) physically a good size.”
Andy Reid mentioned Darius Harris' strong preseason as a reason he's getting the chance to fill in for Willie— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 22, 2022
He showed off quick reaction skills, good angles, and sound tackling a few times #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/xwmuJ5JLRF
In the preseason, Harris racked up six tackles; the two of them above show Harris reacting quickly to the play, taking the correct path and angle to the ball carrier, and finishing the tackle. He does it from two alignments, one from an off-ball spot and the other on the line of scrimmage chasing the run from behind.
Harris was playing a lot of MIKE in the preseason, but he'll be in the WILL spot now to keep Bolton where he is— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 22, 2022
The position can require some open-space ability as a tackler and avoiding blocks. He flashes that on these consecutive plays, sniffing out the screen on the 2nd pic.twitter.com/XISnpbzTCF
He showed off fast mental processing throughout the preseason, but especially on these two snaps, where he plays more in space and has to work through open-field traffic to get to the ball; he earns the tackle on each screen play. The recognition and execution on these plays can help him make up for what he lacks in explosiveness and overall athleticism.
“I’ll tell you, he’s smart, he’s instinctive, he’s tough,” Coach Reid asserted. “He’s got a good grasp of the defense and (Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo) does quite a few things within the scheme, so he’s got to be able to process all of that and he does a good job of that.”
Reid’s words of praise can definitely mean a lot to the new, temporary starter, but Harris also has the respect of his new running mate at linebacker. Nick Bolton recognizes how significant it is that Harris has been on the team for so long — longer than both Bolton and Gay.
“He’s been here for a while now. He knows the scheme like the back part of his hand,” Bolton emphasized to the press after practice on Wednesday. “And so, he comes in every single day and puts his heart out for our team. He executes the game plan, flies around, (and) has fun. (He) plays with great energy. Those are the things that we pride our defense on, so I have no question that he’s going to come in ready to play and make plays for us.”
Flying around and having fun with great energy is basically a requirement for replacing Willie Gay’s role. That will be missed, so the juice may have to come from elsewhere; it’s hard to expect a first-time starter to embrace that part of Gay’s impact.
#Chiefs liked using Gay as a blitzer, and even threatening to blitz, just to make the pass protection think about him— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 22, 2022
Harris had a few quality reps of selling a blitz, then dropping effectively into coverage this preseason pic.twitter.com/pFwDPP9kz3
Harris will need to embrace having Gay’s responsibilities within the scheme, and we did get a little bit of a preview in the preseason. Here, you can see Harris’ commitment to selling a blitz, then dropping back into coverage to effectively blanket the receiver he needs to.
Spags was heavily utilizing Gay as a blitzer against the run and pass. If Harris is asked to do the same, his ability to blitz can be just as important as his ability to disguise or fake his intentions before the snap.
Harris has only started one NFL game in his career — Week 16 of 2020, playing with the division basically locked up and in front of a COVID-impacted crowd. This time, the stakes are raised much higher, being on the road against an AFC opponent with a whole season still to unfold.
Harris matched the raised stakes by raising his own game, based on how much better he looked this preseason than at any other time in his career. The noticeable improvement set him up to be an easy answer for a tricky question that Reid never wanted to have to answer.