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Northern Nash DL Isaiah Gay commits to Illinois

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Northern Nash's Isaiah Gay, center, smiles after donning a University of Illinois cap Friday at Northern Nash High School to announce he signed his National Letter of Intent to play football at Illinois. Friends, coaches and family joined Gay for the announcement including his mother Chirley Gay, seated left, and his father Derek Gay, seated right.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Friday, February 10, 2017

Isaiah Gay honored Northern Nash football coach Randy Raper’s most important message, and it helped vault him to the next step in his career.

Gay, a Northern Nash defensive lineman, committed to play football at the University of Illinois. He sent in his letter of intent on Feb. 5, and made his decision public at a ceremony in the Knights’ gymnasium Friday afternoon.

The reveal, with his family beside him in front of about a hundred students, had a touch of his bubbly personalty. Gay first unzipped a green Knights jacket to reveal a Duquesne T-shirt, only to pull that off to display an Elon shirt. That soon came off, and he stood in a white button-up shirt and a black bow tie. Gay then put on an orange Illini hat that sat on a table with three others.

“As a coach when you’re dealing with a player like him, you get a feeling from watching him early of what the potential is,” Raper said. “And watching him take a road to success and what he worked for is great. Believe me, he has worked so hard, and everything that’s happened to him has happened for a good reason.”

Raper, like most every coach, implores his players to never take off a play. Gay took that message to heart and made it his goal to play at full speed no matter the score or opponent. It was that unrelenting style that ultimately got him noticed.

Illinois recruiting analyst James Kirkland was going though volumes of tape to finish scouting another player when he noticed Gay instead. The defensive end always seemed to find his way into the opponent’s backfield.

“Coach Kirkland was viewing someone else, and he really saw me stick out and he was like, ‘Who is this No. 12?’ and he followed up on me,” Gay said. “That’s why I say this whole process was a blessing.

“My coach now (Raper) talks about never to take plays off. And I really appreciate that because it paid off for me in the long run. If I didn’t go hard every play, maybe Illinois would have moved on and kept watching that kid.”

The Northern Nash senior’s recruitment began slow, but soon became a circus as national signing day approached. He all but committed to signing at Elon, before a whirlwind of late offers began to pour in. He received interest from a number of schools, including Illinois and nearby East Carolina, and decided to postpone his signing day to take stock of the new offers.

Illinois, already late in the process and trying to fill its scholarship slots, didn’t want a unique talent like Gay to slip away. The Illini offered the senior a full scholarship a couple weeks ago, and Gay flew out last weekend to visit the campus and coaching staff. There, he spoke with coach Lovie Smith and met with current players. That trip sealed the senior’s commitment.

“Lovie, he’s a celebrity. He coached one of my all-time favorites in Julius Peppers, and it’s a dream for him to coach me, too,” Gay said. “You grow up watching ESPN and the NFL and you see him, and now I actually get to play for him. Everybody there, the players, were pushing me to be great and encouraging me even though I haven’t signed there yet. I felt at home, so I’m excited to get there and get to work.”

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior had a breakout season. He was the Knights’ defensive player of the year the past two seasons, but tapped into something more this past season. He was a force on the Knights’ defensive line and recorded 97 tackles in nine games. He used a rare blend of speed and strength to work his way through offensive lines and into the opposing backfield where he amassed a whopping 21 tackles for loss.

This class is Smith’s first at Illinois after signing a six-year, $21 million contract in March before the 2016 season. Smith is a defensive-minded coach who has made several coaching stops in the NFL, including taking the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006. After gaining a better understanding of the college game, Smith wanted to recruit a team built around speed, and Gay fits that bill.

“His vision is very bright,” Gay said of Smith. “He’s trying to develop a defense that’s violent and fast. Sure, there’s some big guys, but he’s trying to bring speed to the table and he told me what he really liked about me was the way I get off the ball, my quickness, and my aggressiveness toward bigger lineman.”

When the two spoke during Gay’s visit, Smith said he was impressed with what he saw out of the Northern Nash star, and he outlined a scenario which would put Gay in a position to earn playing time right away.

“That part really got me,” Gay said, “because some other schools, even some D-I AA schools were looking to redshirt me. I want to play.”

Smith has big plans for Gay, and was so impressed with the senior’s highlight tape that he likened it to an action film.

“My highlight tape is 12 minutes, 34 seconds long, and Lovie himself calls it 12:34 of straight action.”

Whether it’s the recruitment process or on the field, Gay seems to find himself in the middle of all the action. 

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