STILLWATER — When asked recently about players who most impressed during spring practice, new Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer did not hesitate.
“The first one that jumped to my mind was Justin,” he said.
Justin Gilbert, that is.
Not exactly a shocking revelation. Gilbert's resurgence this spring following a disappointing junior season — and brief flirtation with declaring for the NFL Draft — has been frequently discussed.
But what did Spencer specifically see?
“When I talk to them about their motivation and having one shot at this thing and you never know when it's going to be taken away from you …” Spencer said, “I'm looking around at the eyes and (Gilbert) was so locked in on me from Day 1.
“He practiced with a purpose every day. He didn't say a word. Nothing needed to be said. He said it all with his effort and he said it all with his tenacity out there for those 15 days.”
There are several theories on why Gilbert took such a slide as a junior following his breakout 2011 season where he picked off Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Landry Jones and Ryan Tannehill as a key member of the Cowboys' turnover-centric defense.
Gilbert admitted he didn't always finish out every play. Coach Mike Gundy thinks outside distractions seeped into the forefront of Gilbert's mind. Cornerbacks coach Van Malone said Gilbert could no longer rely on pure athleticism and needed to work on his technique. And OSU's consistent 10-yard cushions in pass defense, of course, sometimes made it more difficult for Gilbert to make plays on the football.
But recent changes to OSU's style, personnel and competition could (should) benefit Gilbert in his final season.
Gundy, Spencer and Malone have vowed to shift to a more aggressive defense, one that will include greater doses of tight, bump-and-run coverage.
Tracy Moore has returned from injury at outside receiver, giving Gilbert the push from a big, talented target he hasn't truly had for a full season since consistently battling Justin Blackmon in 2011.
And what about the addition of veteran cornerback Tyler Patmon, a postgraduate transfer who started three years at Kansas? During the spring, Gilbert lined up with three youngsters in Kevin Peterson, Ashton Lampkin and Miketavious Jones. Patmon's experience — and apparent rejuvenation after finding a new program — should only help.
As always, whether Gilbert has completely rebounded won't be determined until Aug. 31 and beyond.
It's clear to Spencer, though, that Gilbert has a renewed attitude. Some will argue he didn't have much of a choice — if he wants to play in the NFL, that is — after his subpar performance last season.
But there's not much more Spencer can ask for from Gilbert at this point.
“He's got to come back in fall camp with the same zeal,” Spencer said. “But I was proud of him, because he had taken a lot of hits. Those kids see that stuff. They read the papers. They look at the message boards and he had taken a lot of shots. So I was very proud of him.
“He's still got to prove it when we line up on (Aug.) 31, but I love the way he's responded.”