Georgia Tech center William Lay celebrates during the Yellow Jackets' 14-10 win over South Florida September 7, 2019 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

How walk-on William Lay went from Georgia Tech scout team to possibly starting

Georgia Tech center William Lay said he was not nervous when he was thrust into Saturday’s game against South Florida, though he had reason to be. For one thing, the sophomore was playing in his first college game.

Moreover, he was being called on to enter into a close game for starting center Kenny Cooper, who had left the game near the end of the first quarter with an injury.

“I was going ahead and preparing like I was playing, like I was going to start,” Lay said Wednesday. “We had no idea what was going to go down in the game, but my mindset, the way I was planning for the game, it was like I was going to start. Once I got in there, I was ready to go.”

It was not a flawless performance, but, considering the circumstances, Lay got the job done. Playing the final three quarters, Lay got his shotgun snaps back to the quarterbacks and he helped running back Jordan Mason run for a career-high 99 yards. On quarterback Tobias Oliver’s 7-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Lay got off the snap and then drove defensive tackle Blake Green about 20 feet down the line of scrimmage, opening a crease through which Oliver cut back for the score.

“Just being able to get in there and play fulfilled my dream,” Lay said. “It was amazing. I was really excited to get in there and play a lot of snaps.”

Watching from the Bobby Dodd Stadium stands, former Yellow Jackets defensive tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson was happy for Lay and totally unsurprised to see him contribute. Cerge-Henderson and Lay sparred for two years when Lay was an offensive lineman on the scout team.

Cerge-Henderson said in one of his first practices with Lay, he figured he would run through him until Lay gave him a jolt to the chest that stopped him cold. Going against Lay in practice became a signal to buckle up the chinstrap.

“You’re not going to take that practice off, you’re not going to take that play off,” Cerge-Henderson said. “Will’s a baller.” 

Lay, 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds, is effective at getting his hands into defensive linemen and stopping their pass-rush charge and also quick enough on his feet to mirror linemen, Cerge-Henderson said. It was also his opinion that Lay’s walk-on status may have limited his opportunities to play.

“Obviously, I’m not a scout or anything, but playing against him, I kind of got a feel for what kind of player he can be,” said Cerge-Henderson, now interning in Atlanta for a construction company. “If people can look past the fact that he’s a walk-on, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him playing on Sundays.”

With the status of Cooper and also guard Mikey Minihan uncertain for Saturday’s home game against The Citadel, it’s possible that Lay could start for the Jackets. Even if Cooper does return, it won’t be a surprise if Lay gets playing time. Lay said he is trying to focus on the game and not think about the bigger picture, “but I guess if (the start) happens, then I’ll look back on it after the game (and) it’d definitely be a monumental spot in my career.”

He has the confidence of offensive tackle Zach Quinney.

“I feel like Will gets better every single day,” Quinney said. “He’s somebody that you don’t have to worry about (whether) he’s going to make the call or not. He’s definitely going to make the right call. He’s going to communicate it across the offensive line and he’s definitely somebody we trust to be in there.”

Lay is about as unlikely a member of the Tech roster as there is. As a three-year letterman at Hart County High, Lay received recruiting interest from two schools, he said. One was at the NAIA level. The other was Tech, which offered him a preferred walk-on spot after he attended a camp and impressed then-line coach Mike Sewak.

Other than the NAIA school, Lay said, “this was the only college that was going to give me a spot on the team, so I was just like, yeah, I’m coming here.”

Lay’s high-school coach, William DeVane, recalled a smart player who played offensive tackle, guard and center over his career. He confirmed the lack of recruiting attention, surmising that Hart County’s 1-9 record in Lay’s senior season and also the team’s late spring practice (which was not as convenient for college coaches to attend) limited exposure. But he thought Lay, whom he described as “an awesome young fella,” was capable of playing collegiately.

“He was just a steady player,” DeVane said. “His measurables, he wasn’t very fast, but he had good size. Of course, academically, he was top-notch.”

Coming to Tech at 260 pounds, Lay was on scout team for two seasons. The hire of coach Geoff Collins last December, he said, gave him renewed hope for playing time.

“(Collins) was like, this is an entitlement-free program,” Lay said. “I knew for sure, I was like, I’m definitely going to be able to prove myself.”

It didn’t hurt, either, that in high school Lay played in an offense similar to offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude’s spread. Lay undoubtedly benefited from Collins’ philosophy to give all players, even those at the bottom of the rung, a high dosage of practice repetitions.

Lay got in the picture in the spring at center and continued his fight in the preseason, even though an injury kept him sidelined for part of it.

“I was just really in the playbooks, trying to figure out the offense through and through, what we need to do in this formation, what do we need to do if we have pressure on this side,” Lay said. “Just making sure I had everything down pat, so when I got on the field, it was flawless. I could go 100 percent and know what I was doing.”

Tech’s depth shortage on the offensive line has probably shortened Lay’s path to the field. The Jackets have 11 scholarship offensive linemen, which would be something akin to having two quarterbacks or four defensive ends on scholarship. Still, with offensive-line coach Brent Key cross-training players so they can learn multiple positions, Lay was his choice when Cooper went down against South Florida. In fact, Lay said, he already was slated to play a series against the Bulls even before Cooper’s injury. On Tuesday, Collins said that Lay “played at a really high level.”

He was one of five walk-ons who earned significant playing time against South Florida, the others being slot receiver Josh Blancato, defensive tackle Djimon Brooks, tight end Dylan Leonard and defensive back Rich Stanzione.

“Coming in, I’m thinking they had the same mindset – I earned a spot on the team,” Lay said. “And whether I have a scholarship or not, I’m going to work to get to this spot that I’m trying to be at. I really didn’t harp on or moan, like, oh, I’m a walk-on, I’m going to have to push extra hard or anything like that. It was just grinding, grinding, grinding to get to the spot, fighting against the other guys, no matter if they had scholarships or not. And I think they had the same mentality.”

Tech fans may recall that Lay is not the first walk-on to earn playing time at center. Sean Bedford worked his way from the scout-team defense to earning All-ACC honors in 2009-10. Beyond that, Lay wears the same jersey number (79) that Bedford once graced, and is an engineering major (mechanical) like Bedford, now Tech’s radio analyst.

“I like seeing No. 79 out there at center,” Bedford remarked during Saturday’s broadcast.

In time, Bedford may have company.

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