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September 15, 2010Football wasn't Marcus Gilbert's top priority when he first arrived at the University of Florida. Problem was, neither was his classwork.
What did Gilbert care about back then?
"The partying," he admitted Wednesday.
While Gilbert enjoyed the nightlife, his play suffered. And his coaches, including top dog Urban Meyer, weren't thrilled.
"He was a guy that was one foot in, one foot out," Meyer said. "For about two years, we were going to throw his butt out of here."
Now a fifth-year senior offensive lineman, Gilbert has become one of the Gators' best and most valuable players.
Although he was slated to start at right tackle this season, he played left tackle in Florida's first two games (wins over Miami of Ohio and South Florida) because injuries and suspensions required the coaching staff to shuffle things around. Despite the position switch, Gilbert excelled.
"I think I handled it pretty good," Gilbert said.
Following every game, Florida's top performers are given the grade of "champion," So far, only one offensive player has earned this achievement twice in 2010 -- Gilbert.
"We moved him from right [tackle] to left," Meyer said. "Sometimes that's an issue, but he picked it right up. He's one of our better linemen. He's very consistent right now."
On Wednesday, Meyer announced Xavier Nixon, who injured his right knee during preseason practice, was returning to the starting lineup at left tackle. Because of that, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Gilbert will be back at right tackle.
"Having Xavier back, that brings a lot of stability to the offensive line," Gilbert said. "It puts everyone back in their normal position."
By now, you're probably wondering how Gilbert, a self-described "late bloomer," turned his Gator career around?
According to Meyer, Florida offensive coordinator/line coach Steve Addazio, who developed a close relationship with Gilbert, rode him pretty good. Meyer also got Gilbert's parents (his father, Jeff, worked President Obama's Secret Service detail during his presidential campaign) involved.
But as it turns out, the Gators' signing of twin linemen Maurkice and Mike Pouncey a year after Gilbert came to Florida might have played the greatest role in his maturation process.
"I wasn't seeing what an opportunity I had," Gilbert said. "A lot of guys in my class were passing me by and progressing -- especially the young guys like the Pounceys. They came in really hungry. They wanted to get better every day. They wanted to be great players ever since they stepped on the field."
That got Gilbert thinking.
"Why can't I do the same thing?" he recalled asking himself. "I have the ability. I have the talent."
By Florida's national championship season of 2008, Gilbert had become a major contributor, playing in 13 of the team's 14 games while starting twice at left guard. Last season, he transitioned to tackle and started all 14 games. After Florida routed Kentucky, Gilbert was named Southeastern Conference Lineman of the Week. In a later win over Georgia, he graded out at 99 percent.
That solid play has carried over into 2010.
"Marcus Gilbert is just playing unbelievable for us quite honestly," Addazio said. "He's been fantastic. He really had a heck of a game [against USF]."
Looking back, Gilbert chalks up his rough start at Florida simply to immaturity.
"I'm a grown man now," he said.
On and off the field, apparently.
"He's going to graduate," Meyer said. "He's going to have an opportunity to play at the next level."