Career day: MSU's Gay makes plays defensively at Alabama

Mississippi State's Willie Gay Jr. (6) makes a tackle against Alabama.

Staff Writer

Mississippi State prides itself on adopting a next-man-up philosophy.

So this past week, as MSU outside linebacker Leo Lewis battled sickness, his backup Willie Gay, Jr. knew he was going to get the opportunity to shine at Alabama on Saturday. Despite the Bulldogs’ 24-0 loss, Gay did just that when Lewis was unable to make the trip to Tuscaloosa.

“I knew I had to step up,” Gay said after Saturday’s game. “Leo was out and I knew I was probably going to play the whole game so I was just trying to do my job and help my team do whatever to win.”

MSU couldn’t get the victory Gay desired, but the former Starkville High School standout did enjoy a career day. The sophomore set a career high with nine tackles, including six solo stops. He also had a career-high two sacks and got his first-ever collegiate interception. Not bad for a guy forced into starting duty.

“We know that’s Willie Gay,” MSU defensive end Gerri Green said of his teammate. “That’s the way he plays. Even when he isn’t a starter, he brings that energy for us. We know he can do it.”

Gay’s success isn’t that big of a shock. He’s shown flashes of his talent throughout his career. The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder had already started a couple of games this year prior to Saturday and played in every contest. In those showings, Gay has had multiple tackles in all but one game. Things like that are why Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead knew he could count on Gay.

“(Gay) and Leo had basically been splitting reps down the middle for quite a time this season,” Moorhead said. “He’s a very athletic guy. He makes a lot of plays in the run game but is also savvy enough in the pass game to get in his drops to cover the entire length and width of the field. It was a big positive step for Willie (on Saturday) in Leo’s absence.”

Perhaps Gay’s biggest highlight was his pick of Alabama quarterback and arguable Heisman Trophy frontrunner Tua Tagovailoa. Before Gay intercepted Tagovailoa, the Crimson Tide signal caller had thrown just one pick all year. Gay immediately doubled that total as he stepped in front of a pass and hauled it in.

“I showed like I was blitzing then dropped back in coverage and he threw it right to me actually,” Gay said. “I didn’t know what to do when I caught it. I was kind of surprised, but it was fun to do.”

In the end, Gay’s interception and his other big plays weren’t enough to lead the Bulldogs to the upset. However if it wasn’t known before Saturday, it’s now readily apparent Gay is a blossoming star on an MSU defense that is already loaded with talent.

“Willie is a dog on the field and he showed that (Saturday),” MSU defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons said. “He just keeps growing as a player. I’ve been watching him since his freshman year and he just keeps getting better. We’ve got a lot of confidence in Willie and we never doubt him.”