KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s been a lot made of Mississippi State linebacker Willie Gay Jr.’s off-field issues, including an eight-game suspension for academic fraud and an alleged fight that injured the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback before a bowl game.
But the Chiefs were willing to look past those concerns — in part because of Andy Reid’s relationship with and faith in the recommendation of Gay’s former coach, Dan Mullen — and spent a second-round pick on him Friday in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Linebackers coach Matt House’s familiarity and connections in the SEC, where he served as an assistant at Kentucky before joining Reid’s staff last offseason, also helped.
“Coach House knows all the guys that have coached Willie, and he’s really close with those guys,” Reid said. “He knows all the ins and outs of the kid, what the kid is all about.”
Still, Gay had a lot of questions to answer during the pre-draft process.
“They asked me about everything — the quarterback situation, the suspension for the academic thing — and it’s not like I’m going to say it wasn’t my fault, because it was something that I could’ve avoided easily,” Gay said.
He allegedly had a tutor perform classwork for him while at Mississippi State and was one of several players suspended for the infraction.
“I dealt with the consequences of it,” Gay said. “It made me a better man; it made me a better person. It helped me appreciate the game of football. It made me really find the love of football even more. Now, I’ve grown from it and I’m ready to just play ball.”
Part of the Chiefs’ confidence in getting the most from Gay is the leadership on defense and accountability in the locker room.
Defensive end Frank Clark, who was accused of assaulting his girlfriend in college, and safety Tyrann Mathieu, who was kicked off the team at LSU for failed drug tests, have overcome similar off-field adversity to become productive NFL players and good citizens.
“It helps to have the people in the locker room that we do with Tyrann and Frank,” Reid said. “They’ll take him under their wings — Hitch (Anthony Hitchens), that whole linebacking room is a tight group — so they’ll take him in and make sure he’s in good hands there.”
Meanwhile, Gay's raw football talent is undeniable. He is one of the fastest and most athletic linebackers in the draft.
“It’s a rare talent here,” Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach said. “He’s going to be a guy that hasn’t played a lot of football, so there’s going to be some technical aspects he needs to work on and certainly at this stage just learning how to come in and process the game and Monday through Friday.”
Reid said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loved Gay’s playing style, calling it “reckless” and noting that his mentality fit in well with last season’s biggest additions to the defense — Clark and Mathieu, who reinvigorated a struggling unit and helped reshape the locker-room culture.
“I feel like it’s perfect for me,” Gay said. “I can get better from those guys. I can learn a lot. They can teach me a lot. I’m just a sponge out there, taking in every detail. Whether it’s something at practice, something at games, something with film room study, I feel like I’m in a great position and the defense is awesome, so I’m ready.”
Gay — 6 feet, 1 inch and 243 pounds — has the size to play middle linebacker, though maybe not the instincts yet, but he’s also got the speed to play outside linebacker and possesses impressive coverage skills.
“If this guy comes back to school next year, plays a full season and is healthy, you’re looking at a first- round pick,” Veach said. “The guy has tremendous upside.”
The Chiefs struggled to cover running backs in the passing game last season, but Gay’s blazing speed and superior athleticism make him ideal to shore up that glaring weakness. He ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine with a 39 1/2-inch vertical and 11-foot-4 broad jump.
“I started playing the game when I was 6 (years old) and I was always the fastest guy on the field,” Gay said. “But when I got to high school, I was able to compete with guys that were just as good as me, it made me fall in love with competing.”
If nothing else, Gay will become an immediate special-teams contributor.