Last September, as a new-look Chiefs’ defense performed only marginally different than the old one, first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo drilled the basics. Over and over and over. Walk-throughs, or mental reps, as he called them, became his primary tool.
As part of the installation of a new system, the teaching elements can be boring, mundane and difficult to keep a player’s interest.
Now? He’d kill for the luxury of the walk-throughs – for a few players in particular.
The Chiefs believe second-round pick Willie Gay Jr., for example, can play an immediate role on a defense that improved considerably as the season aged. Without the reps – even those of the mental variety – that’s merely an educated guess based on college film, physical attributes and video conversations.
“I don’t know that you know what you have until you get him here,” Spagnuolo said. “Brett Veach and his staff did a terrific job identifying him. We’re glad we have him. We’re excited for what we think he can do. But until we get him out there, we won’t really know.”
The college tape at Mississippi State, along with measurables like a 4.46 time in the 40-yard dash, sold the Chiefs’ front office and coach Andy Reid.
Sold Spagnuolo, too. The reckless nature of his style stood out, a comfortable fit along safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Frank Clark.
“I mean things jump off the chart in regards to speed. He’s a violent hitter, which we love,” Spagnuolo said. “Hopefully all those things transfer to this league.”
The hope is the transfer is immediate.
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said Gay is capable of playing any of the three linebacker spots – SAM (strong side), MIKE (middle) or WILL (weak side).
But initially, Spagnuolo has determined, they will line him up on the outside.
“We think, without knowing right away, or we’re hopeful, I should say, that he would replace what Reggie Ragland did for us last year,” Spagnuolo said. “I preface that by saying we won’t know that until we get him in. I think we’re a long way away.
“You guys get it. He comes from college into the pros – trying to get him up to speed takes a little while.”
Ragland played 235 snaps last season – on the field mostly for early-down and run-heavy situations – but signed a one-year free-agent deal with Detroit in March.
The Chiefs bring back two starters in the linebacker group, with Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson. Ben Niemann also played 401 snaps a year ago.
But Spagnuolo has proven unafraid to make alterations. The Chiefs began 2019 with Hitchens, Wilson and Darron Lee before Lee lost his spot after just two games, prompting Wilson to shift from SAM to WILL.
Gay projects potential to be an every-day player rather than a situational one. He can cover, which would fill perhaps the most glaring need on the team’s defense. And he can play the run. Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub also sees him as a regular member of the special teams units.
In any normal year, late May would be too early to turn the optimism any rigid determinations. In 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic preventing on-field work, it seems even earlier.
“If feels like 2011 when we had the lockout when I was in St. Louis. Now, we’re way ahead of that because we have all these Zoom meetings,” Spagnuolo said. “But I think Willie Gay will begin there (on the outside). Whatever else we can do with him, we’ll build on that.”