For the second time since February, Hugh Freeze has pilfered a blue chip croot from Dan Mullen's backyard. Willie Gay, a four-star linebacker at Starkville High, committed to the Rebs via Twitter on Friday night, joining 2016 Rebel signee A.J. Brown as the latest Oktibbeha County defector.
When Gay, the No. 3 player in the state of Mississippi and the No. 11 outside linebacker nationally, abruptly announced Friday morning that he'd be making a public decision later in the afternoon, all signs pointed to the Bulldogs. He'd just wrapped a trip to State's summer football camp and, perhaps more significantly, he was announcing eight months before the signing deadline. Why out yourself as a Cheatin Rebear knowing you had to spend the better part of the next year living in Starkville? When Brown announced, it was on signing day, at least minimizing the harassment window.
Brown, who picked the Rebs in a shocking National Signing Day decision in February, had thoughts:
I know Starkville mad again . That's his decision tho because he is the only one who is gonna get up for 6:00 workouts.... Nobody else— 1k (@Brown1arthur) June 17, 2016
Ik a lot of people are about to change up but when God is with you who can be against you!!?!— King_3 (@WillieYRN) June 18, 2016
Gay's commitment goes far beyond schadenfreude—it lands the Rebs a desperately needed starting-caliber linebacker following a couple years of whiffs at the position. Two cycles ago, four-star Leo Lewis was an eleventh-hour flip to State. This past February, Ole Miss lost a late battle with UCLA for five-star Mique Juarez, then watched JUCO four-star David Luafatasaga flip to Utah.
Freeze mitigated those misses by bringing in a trio of late transfers this offseason—Oregon State's Rommel Mageo, Syracuse's Qaadir Shepard and JUCO Detric Bing-Dukes—but none of those offer the longterm potential that Gay does. It's the second linebacker commitment of the week for Ole Miss, which landed three-star Josh Clarke on Monday.
During his junior year, Gay collected 84 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, six sacks, nine pass breakups and four interceptions, serving as a key cog in Starkville's state title run.
How does he fit in?
Gay is a rangy outside linebacker who already has the size at 6'2 and 215-pounds to step in and contribute right away. Rommel Mageo, the graduate transfer from Oregon expected to start at middle backer this season, has just one year of eligibility and he'll be followed out the door by seniors Terry Caldwell and Temario Strong.
The only proven linebacker commodity that will be on the roster in 2017 is DeMarquis Gates, who will be a senior that year. JUCO transfer Detric Bing-Dukes has three years of eligibility and Syracuse transfer Qaadir Shepard will have three years after sitting out 2016.
But Gay isn't necessarily locked in as a linebacker. A sure tackler in space whose 4.6 speed allows him to cover screens and stretch plays, Gay is a potential candidate to replace Tony Conner at the husky spot.