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'Blood, sweat and tears': Duke football's Mark Gilbert's emotional journey back to the field

<p>Mark Gilbert is slotted to start at cornerback for the Blue Devils in 2020.</p>

Mark Gilbert is slotted to start at cornerback for the Blue Devils in 2020.

Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill., Sept. 8, 2018. Mark Gilbert lines up in press coverage on third-and-10 with eight minutes left in the second quarter. Duke’s star cornerback is at the top of his game, bestowed with 2017 All-ACC First Team honors and reaching mock drafts as a potential first-round pick.

Five seconds later, the script flipped, and Gilbert was down on the field injured, his career temporarily put on hold.

Now after a couple of tumultuous years of rehab and training, the redshirt senior will suit up again for the Blue Devils, looking to retake his place as one of the best defensive backs not just in the ACC, but in the country.

“Those blood, sweat and tears on that practice field," Gilbert said. "Doing that with your teammates, you don’t realize how much you miss that until it’s taken away from you.”

‘A great spirit and a great attitude’

The official diagnosis for the injury Gilbert suffered against Northwestern was a dislocated hip, suffered in just the second game of his junior year. Dr. Steven Olson and Dr. Annunziato Amendola performed the surgery on the injured hip and the team announced he would miss the remainder of the 2018 season, though many Duke fans didn’t grasp how serious the injury was.

In Aug. 2019, Gilbert again went in for surgery, this time to do what head coach David Cutcliffe described as “clean up work” on the hip. Though there was some optimism that Gilbert would play in 2019, he ultimately sat out the entirety of last season.

“That was a mental battle that I had throughout this entire process,” Gilbert said. “There was a little bit of doubt. There were thoughts of was I ever going to play again. And when I kind of realized I was going to play again, it was the thought of was I ever going to be the player I was before and was I going to reach the elite level I was playing at my sophomore year.”

A typical day for Gilbert in his recovery would be an early start around 8 a.m., when he would rehab for an hour to an hour and a half. The Terry Sanford High product would go in for treatment later in the day, and the training staff made sure to include occasional off days as well.

“We had an amazing plan for me to return to play,” Gilbert said. “I never felt rushed throughout the process. Our training staff did a great job making me feel comfortable and I was very trusting of them throughout the whole process.”

After Gilbert was cleared to play, he returned to practice for spring camp, though there were only a limited number of practices before camp was abruptly ended due to COVID-19. The former three-star recruit was listed in the Injury Report as full speed during those spring practices.

“He’s had a great spirit and a great attitude,” Cutcliffe said back in April about Gilbert’s play in the spring. “The amount of work he’s put in is crazy. After the first day he told me, ‘Wow, I forgot how fast everything is. Guys are fast.’ It’s just getting back to it.”

Though the on-field time in March was a confidence booster for Gilbert, he’s taken fall camp in stride since it kicked off in early August. After completing the full camp, he’s now had the chance to reestablish himself in the grind and build back his assertiveness on the field.

“I’m just a lot stronger with being able to practice longer,” Gilbert said. “I’m able to get into my groove and gain my confidence over time. Those three practices in the spring were good to get my feet wet, but it wasn’t really enough to reach the confidence level that I want to be at, which camp has allowed me to do.”

‘The same Mark Gilbert’

At this point in time, the 6-foot-1, 175-pounder isn’t on preseason All-ACC teams and won’t be in the first round of any mock drafts, but Gilbert confidently stated that he is a better player than he was before the injury. If Duke wants him to lock down one side of the field or an opponent’s best player again, the confidence the 23-year old is exuding right now is certainly the right first step.

“It’s the same Mark Gilbert that you guys knew and loved before he got hurt,” co-defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri said. “He’s been absolutely fantastic and an even more mature version because he’s had to overcome so much adversity in his life. I’ve known Mark since he was a sophomore in high school and to see him grow and progress to who he is today—not only what he is, he’s always been a talented dude, but who he—that’s a special guy.”

With so much time off the field, one of Gilbert’s main goals was to become a leader for his younger teammates in the secondary. Former Duke defensive backs coach Derek Jones departed the program this offseason for Texas Tech, and with cornerbacks coach Chris Hampton set for his first season in Durham, it’s important for Gilbert and his fellow upperclassmen to aid the transition as best they can.

“There’s going to be great competition in the secondary, something I’m looking forward to. And I know [Gilbert's] looking forward to it,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s been a good vocal leader. I know our young people not only listen to him because he’s a great player. I think they all know the price he’s paid to get back to where he is.”

The Blue Devils’ pass defense figures to be one of the team's major strengths in 2020, stacked with talented and experienced players. Gilbert headlines the cornerbacks along with Josh Blackwell and Leonard Johnson, while Marquis Waters and Michael Carter II lead a safety group that is arguably Duke’s deepest position on the roster.

Yet, many eyes will follow Gilbert as the season gets underway, wondering if he’ll stack up to his 2017 campaign of 35 tackles, 21 passes defended and six interceptions. The North Carolina native says he’s now a smarter football player than ever before and added a more physical aspect to his game trying to get back to the shutdown corner role he had.

“That’s my goal, to return back to that ‘Gilbert Island,’” Gilbert said. “But as the player I know that it's going to take—I haven’t played in an actual game in two years. Of course, I’m going to have to get used to it, get used to the game speed, but once I do that, ‘Gilbert Island’ will definitely be present.”

Gilbert’s road back to the gridiron has been a long, tumultuous journey, and now it makes it all the sweeter that his return is here. The program is filled with a palpable buzz about what its star cornerback will bring, knowing the work he put in to take the field Saturday at Notre Dame.

“I have seen Mark almost in tears trying to work his way back,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m very, very proud of that young man.”

For more preseason coverage of the 2020 Blue Devils, check out our football season preview for features, predictions, and more.


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