The first word almost always associated with Justin Gilbert: fast.
So it is again as the NFL Draft finally arrives for the former Oklahoma State star. And this time, it’s with a twist, as Gilbert carries an amended tag into Thursday’s first round: fast-riser.
A panel of ESPN analysts recently included Gilbert on a short list of candidates who could be charging up draft boards and into the top 10 when the first round goes down Thursday night. Already a consensus pick as the draft’s top corner prospect and a lock for the first round, Gilbert’s decision to return for a senior season grows wiser all the time.
By now, Gilbert’s story of struggle in 2012 is well-documented around these parts. Following a breakout sophomore season, he slumped as a junior, losing focus and losing motivation for the job at hand.
“I relaxed a little bit,” Gilbert said. “I thought I could just get by on talent.”
Gilbert had the talent, but he entered games lacking preparation, essentially glossing over scouting reports and film sessions on his way to Saturdays. Coupled with a lack of competition — whether on the depth chart or from receivers in practice — Gilbert admits he failed to push himself in practices.
The result was telling. And humbling.
After ranking No. 14 nationally with five interceptions in his strong 2011 season, Gilbert failed to intercept a single pass in his encore. Worse, he was beaten for big plays in big games. And after a preseason filled with hype and expectation, he ended the year with but a hint of recognition — second-team All-Big 12 kick returner.
“Obviously, I didn’t have the season I wanted,” he said. “Embarrassing. I was humbled.”
Still, Gilbert flirted with the idea of declaring early for the draft, believing he could restore some of his reputation through the combine and individual workouts. But would it be enough to erase his season of struggle and calm concerns?
So Gilbert flirted, yet stuck with OSU, banking instead on a renewed work ethic.
“I turned things around as soon as that junior season was over with,” he said.
Gilbert returned to dominance as a senior, locking down his side of the field, intercepting seven passes and defending many more. He emerged as a Thorpe Award finalist, earned First Team All-Big 12 — at defensive back — and picked up First Team All-America honors as well.
And he kept impressing, wowing at the combine, running a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash — yeah, he’s fast — and doing well with other measurables as well as his on-field work.
“He’s awesome,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said at the time.
Now Gilbert arrives at the draft generally considered the No. 1 corner, although some prefer Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard. Gilbert’s strengths, aside from the speed, are his fluid movement, his transitional quickness and recovery speed, footwork and ball skills, according to scouts. His weaknesses: run support and occasional lapses in focus.
The NFL fired out this Draft teaser regarding Gilbert on Twitter over the weekend: “Ideal Size. Ideal Speed. And can take it to the HOUSE,” along with a promo of “Top CB in the #NFLDraft.”
Mel Kiper’s Big Board on ESPN.com has Gilbert at No. 20, although he projects him going No. 14 to the Bears. Kiper’s cohort at ESPN, Todd McShay, projects Gilbert at No. 11 to the Titans.
Writes Kiper: “Gilbert is a special athlete, and put together a bounce-back 2013 season. He combines short-area quickness to adjust to routes and open-field speed to run (or past) any receiver. He has enough size and strength to redirect routes at the line and can then flip his hips and run with anybody, though WRs too often create space against him. He has good ball skills and can help in coverage. The big question: tackling.”
At NFL.com, Gilbert is listed as the No. 9 prospect in the draft. And in mock drafts involving the site’s four analysts, three have him going at No. 10 to the Lions.
And Gilbert could be rising.
He’ll be in New York City, one of 30 players attending the draft, an experience he’d have had no shot at a year ago. And while he promised to remain calm, he told his hometown newspaper back in Huntsville, Texas, that once he arrived, he might get some “gut bubbles.”
All bets are off once his name is called.
“I have no idea what will happen,” he told the newspaper. “I'm probably not going to cry, but I don't know how (my mother) is going to take it when my name is called. If she starts crying, I'll try my best not to look at her.
“No, but it's something I think I'll handle well and with a big smile on my face.”