University of Puget Sound football coach Jeff Thomas wouldn’t restructure his multilayered offense for just anybody.
But in the spring of 2012, a robust recruit named Josh Gilbert — a hulking 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds — entered the Loggers’ football office and announced he wanted to play tight end.
Knowing Gilbert was checking out other schools, Thomas beelined for the computer to check out the grades of the senior from Jackson High School of Mill Creek. They were good enough to get into UPS.
Then he glanced at his playbook: Could he accommodate the presence of a tight end?
He wasn’t sure, but he assured Gilbert he would try his best.
Now it is paying off. As a sophomore, Gilbert has emerged as no worse than the No. 2 option for the Loggers. With outside receiver Bryson Calma (head) sidelined, he will challenge slot receiver Kevin Miller for the most passing targets from quarterback Braden Foley the rest of the way.
“The growth in our offense has a lot to do with Josh’s ability to stretch the field horizontally,” Thomas said. “His growth as a blocker has been good. His growth as a receiver has been great.”
How Gilbert grew to be a big, strong athlete is a bit of a genetic mystery. His parents are of average height. His grandfather was 5-5.
“That’s always been a running joke that I have always been the big guy in the family,” Gilbert said. “The next-closest guy is a cousin who is barely 6 feet tall.”
Because Jackson High ran a spread offense, a need for a tight end was minimal. So Gilbert concentrated on playing defensive end, and he was an all-Wesco second-team selection as a senior.
Gilbert started researching high-academic schools that featured a tight end on their football teams. He visited Northwest Conference rival Linfield in McMinnville, Ore., as well as Western Oregon, an NCAA Division II school in Monmouth.
He visited UPS three times. Each time, he asked if the Loggers would be willing to utilize him at that position.
“They didn’t have too much tight-end stuff in their offense,” Gilbert said. “But I kept looking at it and envisioning it happening.”
Last season was a bit hectic. He began the season playing solely tight end, rarely featured in the passing offense. By the third game, he was rotating in as a defensive end, virtually becoming a two-way player.
“By the second half of games,” Thomas said, “he was exhausted.”
But Gilbert’s time at defensive end sharpened some of his instincts at tight end — and his skill at blocking pass-rushers.
“I can now start picking up on some things about defensive ends — body types ... and what kind of pass-rushers they are, just because I was doing some of those things,” Gilbert said. “The biggest thing is watching their eyes. It gives away a lot of the time where they are looking to go — into what gap they are rushing.”
This past offseason was key for Gilbert and the UPS coaching staff. The player greatly reduced his 40-yard dash time (from 5.2 seconds to 4.9) and showed better agility in space. Thomas figured out better ways to integrate a tight end into the passing game.
Gilbert only has 11 receptions in five games, but it is evident Thomas wants to get him the football more. Last week against Case Western Reserve, Foley’s first pass of the game went to the tight end off play action. Gilbert was targeted three times in the first quarter.
Expect that number to grow in the final weeks of this season — and beyond.
“He is starting to show the ability to play in space,” Thomas said. “Long term, we expect him to play receiver, tight end, fullback — and use him as a running back in certain situations.”Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org @ManyHatsMilles