Lucas at Large: Gilbert develops instinct to complement physical tools

FB_110915_Gilbert_David.jpegUW coach Bret Bielema likes to be consistent when he walks into the locker room at halftime.

"Usually, I kind of come in and give my 'The score is 0-0 ... We're going to play well (in the second half) ... Let's hydrate,''' he said.

That would be standard operating procedure; his business-as-usual message to the team.

But it took a different turn for Bielema at halftime of last Saturday's game against Oregon State.

That's when he crossed paths with defensive end David Gilbert.

"A lot of times,'' Bielema said, "kids take a big step when they kind of have that -- for the lack of a better  term -- that killer mentality, that sense of 'Okay, I got something here.'

"I know on Saturday, he was having his way with an (Oregon State) offensive tackle and David was going nuts about 'Whoever gets this guy, you should own him. He can't block you.'''

Bielema had not often seen this side of Gilbert -- the raging bull.

"He had been this nice, baby-faced David Gilbert,'' Bielema said, "who I had seen kind of grow into a man right in front of us.''

Physically, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Gilbert has always looked the part.

"David has always been genetically gifted,'' Bielema said.  "He's just naturally had some intangibles that a lot of people don't have ... (they) don't have the same blessing that he does.''

But it has been a process for Gilbert, who's young for his class. He's a junior and only 19.

Nonetheless, Bielema saw Gilbert in a much different light last Saturday.

"I think that light bulb has finally come on,'' he said.

Bielema was not alone in that assessment of Gilbert.

"It was his best performance since he's been on campus,'' said defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. "He got pressure on the quarterback, and he did a nice job in the run game.

"You can see a guy who's starting to peek around the corner -- he just kind of needs that confidence boosting performance -- hopefully that's something that he takes and builds on.''

That's what co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash saw out of Gilbert, too.

"Saturday was probably the best day of football that he's had since he's been on campus,'' Ash said, "or at least since I've been on campus with him. He played at a high level.

"What we saw out there on Saturday is what we've been hoping to see out of David.''

How did Gilbert handle such a favorable report card from the Oregon State game?

"I'm less disappointed than I have been in my career, but I'm not satisfied,'' he said after Wednesday's practice. "I'm glad the coaches thought that I stepped up my game.

"But I know, for me, that's nothing compared to what I can do -- and will do in the future.

"It just pushes me harder each week.''

Gilbert said the biggest difference has been being "more confident in my pass rush.''

That has taken some time to hone if not master. It's still a work in progress.

"I think the thing that he's probably taking to the football field now,'' Bielema said, "is the fundamentals that Coach Partridge teaches on every play.''

Partridge explained, "It has taken him a couple of years to get his steps and hands in line.''

That would be the coordination of feet, hands and/or strikes to huge offensive tackles.

"When you come from Florida,'' said Gilbert, a native of Coral Springs, "we have small (offensive) linemen and people tell you that you're undersized.''

With the help of Ben Herbert and the UW strength and conditioning staff, he has bulked up.

"That's always been one of his issues -- his weight,'' Ash said. "He's tall and lean. But he's gotten a lot stronger and put on a lot of weight. We just have to keep it on him during the season.''

What excites Gilbert the most? "If I can put on a couple of more pounds here and there, I know that it will help a lot,'' he said. "I still have a lot of growing to do.''

At the same time, Gilbert has been growing more and more confident in his own abilities. That was the backdrop to Bielema searching for the right term to describe Gilbert's development.

How about killer instinct instead of killer mentality?

Gilbert nodded approvingly.

"Right before the half when I was getting a lot of pressure on that (Oregon State) quarterback,'' Gilbert said, "you could smell the blood in the water. You could feel that tackle was not comfortable.

"That's just a great feeling because I feel like I'm in control at that point. That's what killer instinct is. You smell that weakness -- that fear -- and you capitalize on it.''

Defensively, the Badgers made great strides between game one and two.

"We're most excited about the difference in effort from snap to whistle,'' Partridge said. "We got a chance to play a bunch of guys (last Saturday) and our tackling was better.

"All the things that everybody in the stands could see that we needed to improve on (from the UNLV game), we felt like we took steps in the right direction.''

It's quite possible that Northern Illinois' dual-threat quarterback Chandler Harnish will be among the best quarterbacks -- if not THE best -- that the Badgers will face all season.

"We have a lot of respect for him,'' Gilbert said.

"But we want to take his head off at the same time.''

Sounds like that killer mentality is becoming an instinct.
ON WISCONSIN