by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
When Deonte Gibson suited up for spring practice in March, it was the first time he had played football in over a year. The redshirt freshman defensive end tore his ACL before the 2011 season, forcing him to spend his first year of college football on the sidelines, and by the time spring rolled around, he was more than ready to get back out on the field.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a good thing,” Gibson said. “I don’t think I was mature enough to play college football; I also wasn’t healthy enough.
“The older guys and my roommates were all behind me. They were like, ‘It’s the first time you get to play so just go for it.’ It was good to just play football again.”
Gibson “went for it” in the spring, and he came out of spring practice as one of the most improved players, taking advantage of replacing injured Quentin Williams at defensive end. Williams is back for the fall, along with returning starter Tyler Scott, but Gibson has thrust himself into the conversation for playing time this fall. He’s put on weight and has been learning from Williams and Scott so he’s ready when his name is called on gameday for the first time in nearly two years.
“In the spring I weighed 245 pounds and now I’m up to around 255 (or) 260 (pounds),” Gibson said. “So I’ve revamped my body and I’ve actually hug around the older guys a lot so they could teach me the playbook, because in the spring we go through the basics and as the season progresses or the summer progresses, we move into the more complex part of the playbook. That’s where I think I kind of made an improvement, is knowing the playbook.”
His teammates saw that progression, as well, and were as impressed as anyone by Gibson’s improvement.
“Coming off the ACL injury when he first got here, it was kind of devastating for him,” defensive tackle Chance Carter said. “But now, you saw in the spring, he is really quick on the edge and has really good explosiveness, and now his legs are getting stronger and stronger and I just can’t wait to see what he does in the season.”
Carter, a sophomore defensive end-turned-defensive tackle, was another superstar for the Wildcats this spring. He missed the early part of practice due to a hamstring injury, but came back for the second part and impressed in the spring game, including finishing with a 17-point play — 5 points for an interception and 12 for a defensive touchdown.
Carter played in nine games last year, but only in a minor role. Now he’s in a battle with Will Hampton for the starting job, and regardless of whether he is the starter, he will have a much more significant role this season.
“When I watch Chance we talked about him having to gain weight, having to get himself in position to be a defensive tackle in the Big Ten,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said, “and he’s there and he’s playing well and he’s being productive.”
Carter and Gibson bring some fresh faces to a defensive line that still has a lot of veterans returning, including three returning starters. It’s a diverse group of players in that respect, but Gibson said it’s good for the unit.
“It’s a wonderful mix because you have the guys that are fifth years, you’ve got your fourth year guys and then you’ve got the younger guys like myself, Chance Carter and Will Hampton,” he said. “They pretty much just help us out. It’s like, they teach us some things and we teach them some newer things. We just kind of feed off each other; it’s a great blend.
With the pieces in place, it’s time for NU’s young defensive linemen to transfer their solid play on the practice field to the playing field on September. However, if the spring was any indication, Gibson and Carter appear ready for the big-time for the first time in an NU uniform.
“I’m a little nervous because I haven’t played a football game in two years, so I want to see what happens,” Gibson said, “but I’m ready for it.”