UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas — Sitting inside the locker room of Highland Park High School, Justin Gilbert spoke about how a strong performance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl would help send the Oklahoma State seniors out right and give the Cowboys a spark for next season.
But could Gilbert be a part of the group leaving OSU, rather than the one sticking around for 2013?
The cornerback remained tight-lipped about that, saying he will wait until after the bowl to decide whether he will return for his senior season or enter the NFL Draft.
But Gilbert did open up about his rocky junior season, one where he did not record an interception, was constantly pushed by a true freshman for playing time and endured plenty of outside criticism.
“Pretty much, everything that could have happened bad, it happened,” Gilbert said. “There were times when I couldn't make plays, but I just wanted it so bad that it didn't happen. I don't know. I just gotta wait for it to come to me, I guess.”
Following a 2011 sophomore season that saw Gilbert evolve from an athletic freak and special teams weapon into a cornerback who picked off the likes of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Landry Jones, plenty of hype surrounded his junior campaign.
Surely, he'd continue to develop into a shutdown corner. And surely, he'd bolt for the NFL after the season.
Instead, Gilbert never snagged an interception during the regular season. He tallied 57 tackles, but too many came after allowing the receiver he was covering to make an easy catch. At times, true freshman Kevin Peterson took Gilbert's spot on the outside, with Gilbert moving to nickelback.
Gilbert said he tried to stay away from all the preseason hubbub. But on multiple occasions this season, OSU coach Mike Gundy has alluded that outside forces have, at times, distracted Gilbert. Cornerbacks coach Jason Jones said he could sense Gilbert was sometimes feeling pressure, and he'd to try to figure out the right thing to say to both motivate and relax the cornerback.
And Gilbert admitted he lacked focus at points during the season.
“I know, from my perspective, that I made plays when I really locked in,” he said. “The plays that I didn't make, it was just things I have to learn from.
“There were some times when I just got zoned out, just floating into coverage. Whenever I went back and watched film, I could see it.”
Gilbert singled out the 32-yard deep ball to Mike Davis he allowed, which helped set up Texas' game-winning touchdown, as the moment he felt the worst this season. And an interception that bounced off his hands at Baylor was the moment that most summarized all the frustrations.
But despite those struggles, Jones has still seen Gilbert make strides as a junior.
A high school quarterback, Gilbert had to learn how to play cornerback as a true freshman and was thrown into a starting role as a sophomore. Now, Jones said, Gilbert understands the intricacies of the position much better. Not just the technique of what to do, but why to do it.
And even with OSU's secondary troubles against Oklahoma and Baylor in its last two games, Jones said that's where Gilbert played his best. In those contests, he matched up against Kenny Stills and All-American Terrance Williams.
“He started doing some good things,” Jones said. “And sort of got back to his old self.”
Jones said that's carried over to the bowl practices, where Gilbert has gotten to refocus on the basics. And he expects Gilbert to play well Tuesday against Purdue.
Then, Gilbert will rely on his family and draft projections to help him make a decision about his future.
ESPN NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper currently ranks Gilbert as the fifth-best junior cornerback prospect. He's a player who would excel at the NFL Combine, based on his blazing speed and freakish athletic ability. But during interviews with teams, he'd have to continuously answer questions about why his production regressed this season.
Jones, of course, hopes Gilbert returns to OSU for one more year.
“What he did his sophomore year is just the beginning,” Jones said. “I think he has a huge upside. And I think (with) one more year, he'd have a chance to show just what he's capable of doing.”