Auburn, Ala.--Following a season-ending knee injury to starting cornerback David Irons
Jr., and the departure of second team cornerback Courtney Denson
, who wanted to transfer closer to home and get the opportunity to play quarterback, there is a need for another corner to step up and fill a void in the rotation.
For Zach Gilbert that need equals a prime opportunity that the redshirt freshman says he wants badly. "The opportunity came--Courtney Denson, he wanted to leave and I was just ready," Gilbert explains. "I knew I was ready. I knew the coverages. I knew what to do and I am just trying to make plays."
And on Saturday, in the Tigers' first scrimmage of the fall, Gilbert showed that he was ready. Running at second team cornerback and mixing in with the first team in nickel situations, Gilbert was never beaten by a receiver on a play, was credited with one tackle and actually took a ball away from Ben Obomanu on a sideline route even though Obomanu was given possession by the officials. However, Gilbert still got the best of the receiver on the play as Obomanu was charged with offensive pass interference and the offense was backed up 15 yards.
"He had been pushing off all day, every day in practice and I told him they were going to call it," Gilbert explained of Obomanu. "It was just a lucky play I guess."
After the session his position coach and defensive coordinator, Gene Chizik, singled out the redshirt freshman for his effort in the scrimmage. "Zach Gilbert really came out here and competed today," Chizik noted. "He is a walk-on, who has really worked hard, and because of our situation it has forced us really to see who we are going to be able to count on and he has really stepped up to the plate and I was proud of him."
The 5-10, 189-pounder, who is originally from Florence, Alabama, was an invited walk-on in 2003 for the Tigers. Gilbert originally chose to walk-on because an injury that ended his senior season early basically ended his college recruitment as well, but now Gilbert says he is very thankful for his chance to become more than just a name on a roster.
"It is a blessing," Gilbert explains about the opportunity to play. "I don't know--it is something everybody dreams of everyday and coming from where I come from a lot of good things don't happen, people end up going by the wayside. I am just glad I have got this opportunity and I am just trying to learn."
A big part of that learning process came this summer during voluntary workouts and, ironically, with one of the players whose injury gave Gilbert his big chance. "Throughout the summer I have been working hard," Gilbert notes. "David Irons, he taught me a lot--I came along with him and he taught me most of my techniques and stuff."
Zach Gilbert (right) lines up in coverage against fellow defensive back Eric Brock during summer workouts.
Gilbert also notes that despite a busy schedule he always made it to the voluntary drills so that he would be ready for his chance. "We had pass skel (skeleton drills) every Tuesday and Thursday and me and David and (Junior) Rosegreen would stay out and do extra DB drills every day, and I would try and come out there every day," he says. "I got up at 5:30 a.m. (for workouts) after that I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., then I came back for extra drills just trying to be ready for opportunities like this."
Even with all of the extra effort, Gilbert is still new to his position after playing only running back and safety in high school. "I am still learning," he says. "I have only had one year playing cornerback so I am still learning and progressing. I feel that I can get better. I know the defense, but there are just certain things I feel that I can get better at. I am getting a feel of it and I think the more reps I get the better I will get at it."
Before he could start learning his new position, however, Gilbert says that Chizik wanted to find out if he could really play cornerback at this level. "When I first got here we were doing a hit drill and Coach Chizik put big Andrew Letts out there for me to hit him," the redshirt freshman explains. "I hit him pretty hard, and Coach Chizik told me from there that I would be able to play here as long as I know how to hit, he would teach me everything else."
After that early reassurance, a redshirt year and a long spring and summer of training and learning, Gilbert now says that he too believes he can really play cornerback at this level. "I can do anything I put my mind to," he says.
With nothing but opportunity in front of him and the path to his goals brightly lite, Gilbert explains that he knows exactly what he is striving for this season. "My biggest goal is that I have got to get a scholarship," he says. "Other than that, I am just going to try to--if I have to play special teams, wherever they want me to play that is where I am going to play. If they tell me to go run through a brick wall, I am going to run through it. I am just trying to get a scholarship, I am hungry."
Due to recent losses in the defensive backfield this walk-on cornerback has a big opportunity and he says he is ready to make the most of it.