By Cam Smith, USA TODAY High School Sports | October 6, 2016 3:10 pm ET
Willie Gay is one of the nation’s top prep linebackers, but that’s probably not why you know about him. If you’ve heard about him, it’s probably that he’s a four-star recruit from Starkville, Miss. — home of Mississippi State University — who has committed to play at Ole Miss, Mississippi State’s archrival.
It’s hard to overstate how large a role Mississippi State plays on life in Starkville. The city is home to fewer than 25,000 people, and Mississippi State’s student population is nearly 21,000. You do the math.
So, how does one go about daily life as an open and avowing Ole Miss pledge when you spend all of your time in a town essentially created for Ole Miss’ archrival? The answer is that you focus on the football, of course.
“I don’t get too much pressure about (being committed to Ole Miss),” Gay told USA TODAY High School Sports from his personal stop on the U.S. Army All-American Bowl Selection Tour presented by American Family Insurance. “No one really says anything to me. I hear a small amount, but not enough to bother me.
“Ole Miss just had such an opportunity there, and I felt like I could come in and make an early impact.”
Of course, Gay’s success on the football field has both created the opportunities and spotlight that bring his choice of Ole Miss into bright relief. Gay is a prodigiously talented linebacker, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound ball of energy who flies around the field and makes crushing tackles. He reads the game well and is the kind of athlete who should be able to step on a college campus and begin contributing to an SEC team from the word go. Of course, that’s why Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and plenty other power programs including Florida State and Alabama are so energized about chasing his signature. He finished 2015 with 84 tackles (17 for loss), six sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. That is a very full season of work, performed with a distinct emotive flair that comes from, “loving the game so much.”
Of course, college football is still off in the distance for Gay, who is focused on his senior season and is excited by the prospect of playing against the nation’s best, both now, in January at the Army All-American Bowl, and at the next level.
“The only thing I’m focused on now is finishing strong and going out with a winning record,” Gay said. “(Being an All-American) is a real blessing. I’ve wanted to be a part of something like this since I was young, so to see it coming true in front of my teammates, my brother and my mom, a lot of the school, that’s amazing.”