STARKVILLE — Randy Carlisle saw a driven Willie Gay when he came to him in the seventh grade.
A young football player for the Starkville Junior High School team, Carlisle noticed Gay had a driving force behind him and aspirations to play at a higher level than high school.
As the years went on and Carlisle continued to coach Gay, he began to see a development he had never seen. Gay, a linebacker, had 83 tackles (10 for loss), a sack, an interception, a fumble recovery, and a blocked extra point. For his efforts, Gay is The Dispatch’s Large School Defensive Player of the Year.
“What he’s doing right now is what he wanted to do,” said Carlisle, an assistant for the Yellow Jackets. “He wanted to be a super, awesome, highly recruited, highly sought after football player, and that’s where he focused his attention and it’s worked out for him. He’s rewarded by the efforts and the work he’s put in to try to obtain his goal.”
Gay, a Dandy Dozen selection by The Clarion-Ledger, is rated as a four-star prospect and is the third-best player in the state, the 111th best player in the country, and the seventh-best outside linebacker, according to 247 Sports Composite.
Gay has 15 NCAA Division I offers, including Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Michigan, LSU, Alabama, Florida, and Florida State. He committed to Ole Miss during the summer, but he decommitted in the fall. He still hasn’t made up his mind about where he will play next season.
“He’s put in the work, extra on his own and added some extra reps in the weight room or ran more,” Carlisle said of the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gay. “If you told him, ‘Hey, you need to run an extra day, you looked out shape Friday night,’ he never balks at that. He would say, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I didn’t feel like I was in very good shape or I’m not in very great shape.’ He’s the type of kid that would call you over the holidays and say, ‘Hey, can you meet me at the field house? I want to go work out,’ which is very rare for a high-school-age kid with so many things and distractions in the world that are out there. For a kid that wants to get to a level that he’s at, not only with God-given talent, but the work that he’s put in, that’s what it takes.”
Carlisle didn’t coach Gay in the eighth grade, but he assumed the role again when Gay became a freshman. He coached Gay through his senior year this past season
Gay credits Carlisle for helping him develop.
“Coach Carlisle and I have been close before I even was good at football,” Gay said. “He has helped me get better at a lot of things and he helped me to understand the game a lot more.”
When Carlisle thinks about the best players he has coached, two players come to his mind. Former Yellow Jacket defensive back Devonte Davis, who played for the 2012 Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 5A State championship team, and Gay. He said Gay is “twice as good as Davis.” Carlisle said when Alabama coach Nick Saban asks about a player, he knew that player was good.
Starkville defensive coordinator Chuck Friend has also seen some good players in his time, but never someone like Gay.
“I said from the day I got here, he’s the best I’ve ever coached because he can play quarterback, he could play wide receiver, he could play running back and he could play every single one of those defensive positions if we wanted him to,” Friend said earlier in the season. “You wouldn’t do it, but he could play offensive line. He would be a good offensive lineman because he’s tough. He’s tough and he’s aggressive. That’s why he could play offensive line. You don’t see that makeup in many football players.”
Gay was moved to the offense in Starkville’s final two games. Former Starkville coach Ricky Woods, who was hired by South Panola, wanted his best player to have the ball in his hands to improve his team’s chances of making the playoffs. Gay did his job by rushing for a team-high 565 yards on 81 carries and nine touchdowns. He was 2 of 7 for 36 yards.
For his four-year high school career, Gay had 217 tackles (31 for loss), seven sacks, and seven interceptions.
“I’ve come a long way since my first year,” Gay said. “I’ve tried to help the team get better each and every year.
“I work out like 24/7. During the week, I just run a hill two or three times. Anything I can get an advantage on Friday night, or least I think I have an advantage is real good and makes me play harder.”
Carlisle said Gay reminds him of former Ole Miss and San Francisco 49er linebacker Patrick Willis because of their body types and their abilities.
Gay was moved to the varsity team as a freshman and played defensive back. Playing that position gave him a chance to work on covering in space. With that background and his ability as a linebacker, Carlisle expects Gay to have a long football career.
“He wants to get better and learn every day,” Carlisle said. “He’s got the mental and the physical attributions that are going to make him I think a big-time starter. I would be very surprised if over his career you didn’t look up and he was a Pro Bowl-type guy.
“He’s going to play on Sundays and a lot of them. You’re going to watch him for years in the league. He’s not a one-hit wonder.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.