The challenges that slowed Duke cornerback Mark Gilbert and how he overcame them

Duke's Alonzo Saxton II (21), Bryon Fields Jr., and Mark Gilbert during the game against Northwestern on Sept. 9, 2017 in Durham.
Duke's Alonzo Saxton II (21), Bryon Fields Jr., and Mark Gilbert during the game against Northwestern on Sept. 9, 2017 in Durham. bthomas@heraldsun.com

Mark Gilbert’s considerable skills on the football field just might allow him to join his relatives in the NFL one day.

So it’s no surprise the Duke sophomore cornerback logged six interceptions this season – second-best in the ACC – and was named first-team all-conference.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe sees a bigger picture. Pleased with Gilbert’s play on the field this season while helping Duke (6-6) return to a bowl game, Cutcliffe is even happier with the personal growth he said Gilbert needed from his freshman to sophomore seasons.

“It’s one of the rewards we get as a coach at this level when the light comes on and they see it,” Cutcliffe said. “They grow into being a young man. That’s what I’ve seen with Mark.”

Gilbert graduated from Fayetteville’s Terry Sanford High School a semester early back in December 2015 so he could enroll at Duke. His transition to college student and college football player wasn’t smooth, both in the classroom and with football. Succeeding at both on the college level required a commitment Gilbert admits he didn’t show early on.

“It was a big jump getting acclimated to college life,” Gilbert admits.

Looking back over the last two years, Gilbert sees things he would do differently now.

“Off the field, coming in out of high school,” Gilbert said, “I wish I would have looked more into how to take a college test. How to study. Study habits. In football, I wish I would have prepared last year, as a backup, like I did this year. Just preparing as if I was a starter.”

After starting the final three games of last season as a freshman, Gilbert found himself as a reserve when spring practice ended last March.

“Not being the starter coming out of spring, it didn’t fit well with me,” Gilbert said.

In the coaching staff’s eyes, Gilbert had as much work to do off the field as on it to earn more playing time.

“Football is so important to the young man,” Cutcliffe said. “When that occurs I think oftentimes we see guys who struggle in almost every aspect of being a student-athlete. School, the day-to-day being a student, the day-to-day just being a college kid I think it sometimes can be overwhelming. I think he got a little overwhelmed. We had to stop him and make him think a little more about his day-to-day consistency.”

NFL connections

Gilbert comes from a family accustomed to athletic success. His uncle, Sean Gilbert, played 11 NFL seasons with the Rams, Redskins, Panthers and Raiders as a defensive lineman. His cousin, Darrelle Revis of the Kansas City Chiefs, is in his 11th NFL season. A cornerback like Mark Gilbert, Revis has made the Pro Bowl seven times and was the 2009 AFC defensive player of the year.

So Mark Gilbert expected to play and play well at Duke. He impressed the coaches during spring practice in 2016 when he still could have been in high school.

He played as a reserve in each of Duke’s first nine games last season before moving into the starting lineup in the Blue Devils’ 28-27 win over UNC on Nov. 10. Gilbert also started the next two weeks, the last two games of the season, a 56-14 loss at Pittsburgh and a 40-21 loss at Miami.

That loss at Miami, in particular, was a rough game for Gilbert. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya torched Duke’s secondary, throwing for 396 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.

Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Gilbert’s confidence took a hit and it leaked over to his personal life.

“You can go a lot of places mentally if you go back to that game,” Cutcliffe said. “You can’t let that affect you.”

Duke went through spring practice in February, and Gilbert failed to earn a starting job. Instead, redshirt sophomore Brandon Feamster and redshirt senior Bryon Fields were Duke’s starting cornerbacks.

RAL_ Duke Wake Forest Football (5) (1)
Duke cornerback Mark Gilbert (28) and defensive tackle Mike Ramsey (99) celebrate Gilbert's interception against Wake Forest wide receiver Alex Backmann (17) on Nov. 25, 2017, in Winston-Salem. (Allison Lee Isley/The Winston-Salem Journal via AP) Allison Lee Isley AP

Fields reached out to Gilbert to provide counsel. He’d been through struggles as a younger player, too, and wanted to help Gilbert get right with the coaching staff.

“That was an opportunity for him to mature, and he definitely took advantage of that,” Fields said. “Coaches saw it. I saw it. We all sat down and talked to him. He really embraced the fact that we are going to need him in a big role on this team.”

Work and focus

When practice started on July 31, Gilbert’s role with the team remained uncertain. The coaches knew he had great abilities, but could they count on him?

“He worked and focused as well as anybody we had throughout the summer,” Cutcliffe said. “Throughout August, he was one of those consistent people.”

When Duke held its first scrimmage on Aug. 12, Gilbert started while Fields was held out to guard against injury. Even when Fields returned to his starting job, he found Gilbert starting on the other side.

“That whole situation,” Gilbert said, “I trust the coaches that they will put the best man out there. I just play football. I just went out there and tried to make plays. I earned the trust of the coaches, and they put me out there.”

Gilbert intercepted two passes against Northwestern on Sept. 9 when Duke blasted the Wildcats 41-17. That solidified his place as a rising star at the position in the ACC and proved to be just the beginning.

On Nov. 25, Gilbert intercepted two more passes when Duke won 31-23 at Wake Forest to earn bowl eligibility for the fifth time in six seasons.

Two days later, the ACC announced its all-conference teams voted on by head coaches and a select group of 45 media members. Gilbert made the first team at cornerback.

Duke cornerback Mark Gilbert after his 2 interceptions helped the Blue Devils defeat Wake Forest 31-23.

“All the hard work paid off, for myself and for our defense and for the entire team,” Gilbert said. “All the hard work that we’ve put in – spring ball, camp. Even though guys get accolades for themselves, it shows the hard work we put in as a team.”

Cutcliffe regularly talks individually, every other day or so, with Gilbert. His growth, as player, student and man, continues.

“I’m happy for him and happy for his family,” Cutcliffe said, “with more of the progress off the field, more of the progress of being who he can be. Certainly he’s playing great football, but I think all of us, if you are in this for the right reasons you get a lot more reward watching them grow up. And he’s growing up.”

The Duke Blue Devils football team gets in the holiday spirit singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" at Union Baptist Church in Durham.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

Duke vs. Northern Illinois

Quick Lane Bowl

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Where: Ford Field, Detroit


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