Duke football went into 2020 spring ball with a lot of questions.
And came out with most of them intact. Duke only had three practices, after all.
Starting quarterback, running-back depth, defensive-line depth, kickers and more are questions that will have to wait for answers.
But there was one piece of good news, tentative perhaps but good news with the promise of being great news.
Mark Gilbert is back.
Let’s reprise. Gilbert is a cornerback from Fayetteville, about 90 miles south of Durham. He was a three-star recruit out of Terry Sanford High School.
Duke didn’t redshirt Gilbert as a freshman. In fact they threw him into the deep end of the pool.
He survived. Barely. Gilbert started the final three games of the 2016 season, against North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Miami. Those teams attacked Gilbert and Gilbert took his lumps. That what happens to freshmen cornerbacks at this level.
But he also notched 18 tackles on the season, knocked away a couple of passes and went into the off-season primed to build on that foundation.
Coaches have come up with a new buzz-word in recent years, “sponge.” Gilbert consistently been described as a sponge, the kind of player who learns from his coaches, his teammates, his opponents, game film, you name it.
It paid off.
Gilbert might have been Duke’s best player in 2017. He had six interceptions, one short of the ACC lead and tied for fourth nationally and led the league with 21 passes defended, the latter a school record. He also had 35 tackles.
He had two interceptions against Northwestern and two against Wake Forest. Duke won both of those games, the latter Duke’s sixth win, clinching a bowl spot in the final weekend.
Gilbert secured Duke’s 31-23 win over the Deacs with a spectacular diving interception with just over a minute remaining.
He was voted first-team All-ACC and fourth-team All-America by Athlon Sports.
All as a true sophomore.
Gilbert was a 2018 pre-season All-America and many considered him, not Daniel Jones, to be Duke’s top NFL prospect.
His season came crashing down in the season’s second game, at Northwestern. It was an innocent-looking pass play, barely any contact. But Gilbert landed the wrong way and dislocated his left hip.
David Cutcliffe called it a “very awkward, odd injury.”
Gilbert underwent surgery within days and was immediately ruled out for the remainder of the season.
Remember those six interceptions Gilbert had in 2017? The entire Duke team had four in 2018.
Gilbert’s rehab hit a roadblock when he had follow-up surgery in August 2019. Suddenly Gilbert’s return went from when to if.
He missed the entire 2019 season.
Gilbert’s name came up periodically last season, both on and off the record. The media was told that he was working hard on rehab, had a great attitude, was an inspiration to his teammates.
But no guarantees that he would ever return.
And Gilbert was not made available to the media.
The first concrete piece of good news came last December in a press conference largely devoted to recruiting.
“He’s doing good,” Cutcliffe told the media. “He’s moving around pretty good right now. Will he get there by spring? I don’t know. His spirits are phenomenal. I really appreciate Mark’s leadership this entire season. He took the role of counselor to those DBs and I’m very appreciative. Seeing the growth Mark’s having is fun for me as a person.”
Duke opened spring ball on March 2 and Gilbert hit the field running.
“He has some anxiety,” Cutcliffe said after that first practice, “but his rehab has been phenomenal. He was real upbeat. He had a good time today. His willingness to work, and his attitude has been the best I’ve seen Mark have.”
Then events off the field started to cascade and talk of rehabbing cornerbacks turned into flattening the curve, social distancing and mitigation.
Sports shut down and rehabbing football players became an afterthought.
Until a couple of weeks ago, when Cutcliffe again addressed the media. This time it was a virtual press conference, conducted on computers through the courtesy of Zoom and largely devoted to Covid-19.
But Gilbert’s name did come up and the news was positive, maybe better than we every imagined it would be.
“He looked really good,” Cutcliffe said. “He got better and more confident every day. After the first day, he was saying, ‘It’s so much faster than you remember. These guys are fast.’ It’s just getting back to it, regaining your confidence. When we went to full pads, he wasn’t shy. On our injury report, he’s full speed.”
It didn’t just magically come back.
“He’s had a great attitude and a great spirit. The amount of work he’s put in is crazy. . . . I think they [his teammates] all know the price he’s paid to get back to where he is. The amount of time he’s spent in rehab, the pain that the physical therapists—if any of you have been with physical therapists a short period of time, can you imagine being with them for two years? I’ve seen Mark almost in tears trying to work his way back.”
We’ve seen enough ACL injuries, Tommy John surgeries, sprained ankles to have some frame of reference. Not so with dislocated hips, a pretty rare injury. A dislocated hip ended Bo Jackson’s career. But that was almost 30 years ago. Tua Tagovailoa dislocated a hip and was the fifth pick in the NFL draft a few months later.
Gilbert seems to be somewhere in between. He’ll be coming back to a new position coach, Chris Hampton who hasn’t had much time to establish any kind of on-field rapport with his players. Duke has two incumbent starters at corner, Leonard Johnson and Josh Blackwell. And two years is a long time to be away from the game.
So, still some bridges to cross.
But if there’s a 2020 season and if the football gods reward hard work and tenacity then Mark Gilbert could be on track to be a big part of Duke’s 2020 football season.