It was no surprise that Willie Gay Jr. would be playing right away for Mississippi State last season, but he admits that it was an adjustment as a freshman in the Southeastern Conference.
The four-star linebacker out of Starkville High School was a U.S. Army All-American and the No. 3 outside backer in the country following his senior year at SHS. His freakish athleticism and knowledge for the game made him a shoe-in for a day one spot in the rotation, but he needed to get acclimated to the speed of the game.
“Last year I didn’t know what to expect,” Gay said. “I’m glad that I didn’t redshirt because I know that it’s a fast game in the SEC and I feel like I’m ready.”
That was the case for all of the linebackers at one point in their careers as Erroll Thompson and Leo Lewis redshirted their first season on campus. Lewis would become a Freshman All-American defender in 2016 and Thompson was a Freshman All-SEC player last year as both made an impact when they finally hit the field.
Now that all three of the players have at least one season under their belt a piece, they’re taking ownership of their positions on the defense.
“We try to be like the leaders in the group,” Gay said of the linebackers. “Even though I’m the youngest, I’ve been trying to be a leader since last year. I try to make sure that everybody is right. Us three stick together and know how good we can be and the potential that we have.”
Among those that Gay is trying to lead are the newcomers on the field. Aaron Brule, Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson are taking in their first few weeks of fall practice in college football and all of those players are having the same deer-in-the-headlights look as Gay experienced at times last year.
With that said, he has seen some potential out of the freshmen in their first few days and also likes what he sees out of former Florida State linebacker Sh’Mar Kilby-Lane after he transferred from Copiah-Lincoln Community College.
“They’re guys that are finally getting adapted to some good coaching. They’ve had to grow up kind of quick but I feel like soon they’ll catch on and start playing.
“I knew from the first day that I met Sh’Mar that he was a baller. I knew when we were doing drills that he was going to be good and a guy that plays really quick here as a newcomer.”
Outside of the linebacker corp, Gay sees some special aspects of the Bulldog defense. Most noticeable are the four guys that will lineup in front of him throughout the games this fall.
The Bulldogs have seven of the first eight players on the defensive line being either juniors or seniors. On top of that, they return two first-team All-SEC linemen in Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons. As Gay would go on to say, the fact that some of the players on the line are backups tells the real story of how talented and deep they are.
“Everybody knows that we have Jeffery and Sweat and some other players that nobody talks about. We’ve got size with players over 300 pounds that can move like Cory Thomas and Chauncey (Rivers) and Lee Autry. Those guys aren’t even on the first team but that’s just the depth we have at that position.”
As for his group, Gay believes the sky is the limit. The Bulldog linebackers have a chance to make their mark among the very best in his mind.
“Best in the country,” Gay exclaimed. “That’s how good we can be.”