Continuing our series counting down the 13 most important players for the Oklahoma State 2013 season.
No. 5: Justin Gilbert, cornerback/kick returner
Let’s state the obvious — the reason Gilbert is back on campus for his senior season is because he followed a breakout 2011 (interceptions of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Landry Jones) with a very disappointing 2012 (zero interceptions).
How much of Gilbert’s puzzling slide had to do with the Cowboys’ philosophy of playing soft coverage, and how much how much had to do with Gilbert himself? We’re about to find out, as the Cowboys are implementing a much tighter plan in 2013 under new defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer and cornerbacks coach Van Malone. If Gilbert is not up to the challenge, he’ll consistently get burned over the top.
Coach Mike Gundy hasn’t been shy about his belief that outside distractions — believing his own press, looking ahead to the NFL, etc. — hindered Gilbert at times in 2012. But now Gundy has turned that criticism into immense praise, stressing Gilbert was refocused and a standout during spring practice. Spencer saw the same thing in meetings and workouts.
Malone calls Gilbert a “dynamic” player. The term “athletic freak” always seems to apply, as well, based on Gilbert’s blazing speed and physical measurables. But Gilbert — a high school quarterback — learned the hard way that he couldn’t just rely on his athleticism to play cornerback, and Malone has been working with him to become more consistent in his technique and in the mental aspect of playing the position.
And, of course, Gilbert remains an electrifying special teams weapon at kick returner. With several questions surrounding that phase of the game, Gilbert is the sure thing. He enters 2013 tied for the Big 12 record with five career kickoff returns for touchdowns.
A bounce-back season is critical for Gilbert. He’s a senior now. He’s playing in a revamped scheme. He’ll be viewed as a leader, not only of a cornerback group that features a fair amount of youth, but of the entire defense. And his NFL future may depend on it.
Here’s our countdown so far:
13. Jake Jenkins, center
12. J.W. Walsh, quarterback
11. Shaun Lewis, linebacker
10. Blake Jackson, inside receiver
9. Tyler Johnson, defensive end
8. Lyndell Johnson, strong safety
7. Tracy Moore, wide receiver
6. Calvin Barnett, defensive tackle
5. Justin Gilbert, cornerback/kick returner