Battle tested

MUNCIE — Spencer Gilbert is ready to reclaim what he lost.

It doesn’t matter that he has gone more than a year without seeing game action. It doesn’t matter that he’ll be playing a new position. And it doesn’t matter that he’s staring down tough odds for playing time.

All that matters is that he’s ready now. He is ready to make an impact; even though, for the first time in a while, he didn’t know his place.

For about two years, he had been at the head of the table. Gilbert was, after all, the class of Class A football his junior and senior years, as his 4,534 rushing yards and 64 touchdowns would attest.

In his final prep season, he led Eastern Hancock to the state championship game. It ended in defeat, but Gilbert’s preeminence in the sport was never in question.

By the close of the 2013, Gilbert was a football titan. He was Indiana royalty. He also was the latest embodiment of an age-old cliché — the big fish in a little pond.

While he was undoubtedly talented, Gilbert’s greatness was often tested by players half his size, half as fast and with half as much as desire.

Seemingly motivated by that fact, Gilbert took to Muncie to try and successfully complete one of the greatest leaps any displaced big fish has ever attempted.

He jumped from the lowest level of high school football to the highest level of college football. Gilbert left Eastern Hancock and enrolled at Division I Ball State.

After years of dominating in blue and white, he expected similar results in cardinal red.

Instead, what he found was a challenge beyond his measure.

“I wasn’t ready,” said Gilbert, who was recruited to play outside linebacker for the Cardinals. “Maybe physically I was ready. I think physically I could have probably played with those guys, but mentally … Mentally, I wasn’t there.”

He was overwhelmed. The playbook, Gilbert said, was a tome, thicker than he could have ever imagined. He struggled to comprehend all that he needed to, and for that, he said, he was sidelined.

His coaches decided to redshirt Gilbert his freshman season, meaning he wouldn’t play a snap for the 2014 Cardinals.

“I wouldn’t say I came in cocky,” Gilbert explained of his opening year missteps, “but I just thought I’d get everything right away. I didn’t. There was just so much more than I ever imagined. … Sitting out was pretty difficult.”

For many, bouncing back from a tumultuous freshman campaign would have been tough enough of a challenge on its own. But overcoming one major obstacle wasn’t enough for Gilbert, as he had to go and embrace another one.

After a temporary shift from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, his coaches came to him with a much different request.

They wanted him to play running back.

Though he had been working since his first day on campus as a linebacker, Gilbert obliged, happily agreeing to transition to the other side of the field, to do whatever was best for the team.

For the past few months, Gilbert has been re-learning his old position.

He is confident the transition will go smoothly, as is a familiar face from his past.

“If you had asked me during his sophomore year if he could handle something like this,” former Royals coach Pat Echeverria said, “I would have said no way. But by the time he was a senior, I would have told you absolutely.”

Now coaching at Zionsville, Echeverria said his faith in Gilbert is backed by something he saw in him once before.

Back when Gilbert was a sophomore at Eastern Hancock, Echeverria said, Gilbert was a stubborn player, too set in his ways and too immature to deal with the kind of adversity he faces today.

“He was just a typical high school kid,” Echeverria said. “They think their way is the best way. That’s the way they are at that age.”

But in the following years, Echeverria watched Gilbert blossom into the 19-year-old man he is today.

“In a short time, he had become such a mature leader,” Echeverria recalls. He was our hardest worker and our best player who not only got the best out of himself, but he got the best out of those around him as well.”

It is for that reason Echeverria knows Gilbert is well-equipped for the challenges that lie ahead, that he can recapture some of the old magic that carried the Royals to Indianapolis.

Gilbert, though, won’t be trying to set the college ranks ablaze. He knows the 10-yards-per-carry average he owned his senior year is an unrealistic bar to set for himself. Instead, he’ll just be looking to grind out whatever yardage he can.

“I’m just going to keep my nose down and try to get five yards,” Gilbert said. “Whatever happens after that is extra. Guys at this level, I won’t be making a lot of moves to go around them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll give them a little wiggle, but my game is going to depend on me being strong enough and confident enough to go through them.”

That’s exactly the kind of player Echeverria thinks he can and should be. If Gilbert keeps working hard and stays mentally focused, Echeverria said, he could be a whole heck of a lot of fun to watch this season.

“I’m so excited to see him play this year,” Echeverria said. “Hopefully I’ll get out to game … I’ll definitely be watching a lot of Ball State on TV.”

Spencer Gilbert

Name: Spencer Gilbert

Age: 19

Hometown: Greenfield

High School: Eastern Hancock (2014)

College: Ball State

Year: Sophomore

Sport: Football

Height: 6 feet

Weight: 210 pounds

Position: Running Back

Jersey Number: 37

High school stats of note: Accumulated 5,691 rushing yards in career. … Rushed for 2,916 yards (school record), totaled 309 receiving yards, tallied 45 touchdowns, recorded 99 tackles and registered 9.5 sacks as a senior. … All-state as a junior and senior. … 2013 Hancock County Offensive Player of the Year. Three-time all-county and all-conference selection. …