As the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Indianapolis Colts this weekend, they face the first of four games they will be without star linebacker Willie Gay Jr. Gay is suspended for Kansas City’s matchups with the Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Las Vegas Raiders and Buffalo Bills.
The Chiefs are doing their part to keep Gay in a good place while he is away from the team, but what is left for the team’s defense on the field is a grand vacancy.
“We lose a lot of energy because he’s one of those energy guys with how he plays,” said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. “We lose speed. And then, that’s a starter. I didn’t really realize this until this morning, but we’re down three starters from the beginning of the season — but next man up. I know Nick (Bolton) mentioned it [Wednesday], and that’s what we have to do.
“Darius [Harris] will step in there, and there will be some other guys that will have to pick up the slack, but we’ll miss Willie.”
The 26-year-old Harris’ story with the Chiefs began in 2019, when the club agreed to bring him aboard as an undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee. After signing Harris, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach called his shot.
“He can be a guy that doesn’t just makes the roster but starts one day,” said Veach in May of 2019. “This was a kid that if he didn’t have the shoulder issue, he gets drafted. We knew that and there was a lot of competition for him. We got after [him] aggressively.”
Spagnuolo said that he and Veach liked Harris’ college tape, which showcased his 6-foot-2, 238-pound linebacker who could play. His high football IQ in meetings with Spagnuolo and Veach led the Chiefs to turn him into a long-term project.
Harris spent 2019 on the non-football injured reserve list, watching and learning in the classroom (and later earning a Super Bowl LIV ring as a member of the roster). Healthy in 2020, Harris spent the next two years getting called up and down from the practice squad, making two late starts in 2020 and participating solely on special teams during seven games in 2019.
Harris used practice and limited participation on special teams to adjust to the speed of the pro game. It led to him finally making the initial 53-man roster after signing a reserve/futures contract in 2022.
A long story short, it has been a complicated road to Sunday’s Week 3 start in Indianapolis.
“It’s definitely been a long time coming, but it’s something I’ve prepared myself ever since I’ve been here for the past three years — going on four years now,” said Harris on Thursday, enjoying the first media scrum of his NFL career. “Just being ready, staying ready. Obviously, I know the time is going to come — and you never know when it is — but when it is, you just make sure that you’re ready for it, which is this week. I’m just glad for the opportunity [and] ready to take the next step forward.”
Harris’ behind-the-scenes persistence to become an impact player has not only impressed the Chiefs’ coaching staff, but also made it especially enthusiastic about his chance to start.
Recounting Harris’ long road, Spagnuolo said he’s “fired up” to see him out there on Sunday.
“Darius has done a great job over the time of his career here, just learning and continuing to improve each and every day,” added linebackers coach Brendan Daly. “I would say the one thing that has impressed me is what he’s done from a mental standpoint — particularly in his ability to communicate, his ability to run the defense, his knowledge of all of the calls, all of the communication has helped him in terms of being able to adjust to different positions.
“We’ve asked him to do a little bit more of that as he’s gotten into his second and third year here. I think it’s served him well — and hopefully, it’s going to continue to serve him well.”
The Chiefs are willing to admit that Harris does not bring the Gay’s speed to the table, but they are fully invested in his understanding of the defensive playbook. It helps that Harris has been working this season behind Nick Bolton as the backup MIKE, which requires the player to know where everyone should be at all times.
That includes knowing much about Gay’s BUCK (back-side) linebacker position, which will see him away from the strength of the formation next to Bolton in the nickel. Harris said he has spent more time in his playbook over the past week, taking in all he will be responsible for on Sunday.
“You have different tweaks here and there from the MIKE to the BUCK,” explained Harris. “At the MIKE position, it’s kind of familiar because you have to know everybody’s position around you — not just yours, so just making sure I’m dialed into the keys and tips at the BUCK position, as far as the MIKE. Just being at a different space on the field; that’s the only thing, really. But for the most part, it’s playing football and being a linebacker.”
Over the years, Spagnuolo has seen Harris get more and more comfortable in his system — and he is at a point where he is playing fast, relying on football instincts without thinking. Harris described this preseason as the time when he took a significant step forward, leading to the most important day of his life.
Of course, those most important to him are just as thrilled
“[My family and friends are] very excited; I’ve been getting contacted all week,” said Harris. [They’re asking], am I starting? Am I starting? It was just one of those things — I got to wait and see — but they’re very eager. I know everybody back at home; I got family coming to the game.”
As fans in Kansas City have their eyes on No. 47, so too will those in his hometown of Horn Lake, Mississippi.
“Everybody’s going to watch the game,” beamed Harris. “Have a watch party and everything like that. As much as I’m excited, I know they’re way more excited and ecstatic than I am.”