Stephon Gilmore is on his way to a breakout season in 2014.
But unlike many of the other notable cornerbacks in the NFL, namely Seattle’s Richard Sherman, you won’t hear it from the lips of the former South Pointe Stallion.
“I really like to let my game do the talking,” said Gilmore, who was selected by the Buffalo Bills’ 10th overall in the 2012 draft. “I guess I talk on the field but I don’t actually try to promote myself or nothing like that.”
Many across the NFL, especially in the Buffalo Bills’ camp, expected Gilmore’s breakout campaign to happen last fall. Instead, he broke his left wrist near the end of training camp and had to sit out the first five games of the season. Bills coaches had voted Gilmore the team’s best player, at any position, emerging from fall camp and it was a big blow to the player, and the team.
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“Everybody in the league knew him. You don’t come into the league as the No. 9 draft pick and go under the radar,” said Donnie Henderson, Buffalo’s defensive backs coach. “You’re talking about a guy that can go!”
Stephon’s parents, Linda and Steven Sr., were worried initially, because the wrist fracture was their son’s first serious injury in his entire football life. Linda thinks that “having the injury has helped him mature as an individual.” For the first time in his career, Gilmore had to stand on the sidelines and watch. But Henderson made sure to keep him involved, which buoyed the player’s mood.
“Once he understood this process is gonna take X-amount of months – ‘I’ve got to get through it mentally, I can’t try to expedite the rehabilitation process, I have to go through it’ – I think once we got past that it was fine,” said Henderson.
Gilmore was able to return Oct. 13 against Cincinnati, albeit with a cast over his wrist – a plaster club. Gilmore’s legs were fine, so he was still able to cover the field like he’d always done, but taking away one of his hands was a serious detriment.
Gilmore is more of a shutdown corner than a ballhawk, meaning he’s more likely to prevent his man from getting open in the first place, reducing the number of opportunities for interceptions. But wearing “the club” on his fragile wrist last season hampered some of the most crucial facets of a shutdown corner, namely being physical with the opposing receiver from the line of scrimmage. Jamming a receiver and getting them off their route is key to preventing the ball from ever arriving. Gilmore had a hard time doing that last year.
“Not knocking smaller guys, but if you can match up with them, you’ll be better off later in the down,” said Gilmore.
“He knows that between his feet and his hands, that’s where his money comes from,” said Henderson. “It was a big hindrance. Even when (the club) came off for those next two weeks it was gonna be an issue.”
Gilmore allowed 70-plus yards receiving in five of his first seven games back. Many of the plays opposing teams ran in Gilmore’s direction were screens, designed implicitly to make him tackle.
“You throw at the guy that’s one-handed, or one-armed, to see if he can tackle,” said Henderson. “When they still tried to throw the ball downfield, he made plays on that. It was the little quick screens where you get the linemen out there and he can’t defend himself.”
In the last month of the season, free of the club, Gilmore lifted his level of play. He picked off two passes and only allowed 122 yards passing against him in his last four games, 46 of those coming on one catch by speedy Miami Dolphins’ receiver Mike Wallace. Both of Gilmore’s interceptions last season came in the red zone, where teams run out of room to operate against a shutdown corner like him. He also broke up four other passes.
Some national media outlets expect the momentum to continue. Gilmore was recently listed by Sports Illustrated’s MMQB web site as a member of its All-Emerge team, a list of breakout candidates in 2014. Andy Benoit’s article said “The popular cornerback debate is (Darrell) Revis or Sherman? By this time next year, it will be Revis, Sherman or Gilmore?”
Fellow South Carolina Gamecock, Rock Hill native and Houston Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph also expects a big season from Gilmore.
“The third year is that year that you normally break through and break out,” Joseph said. “You watch Stephon closely last year, he got off to a great start and had the wrist injury and he came back and he finished well. I watched him closely and I was able to see him making strides from the year before. I think he’s just excited about this year from a comfort standpoint.”
That’s the biggest jump in the third year for corners, the comfort level.
“Just the familiarity with the routes, because a lot of offenses run the same plays but they use motion and different things to get to those plays,” said Joseph. “The more you’re out on the field and the more repetitions you have, it gives you the knowledge to be able to react to things a lot quicker than you would in earlier years in your career. Right now, I think he’s at that stage in his career.”
Joseph said he and Gilmore speak about once or twice every two weeks; often times the conversations avoid football altogether.
“It’s my role as an older guy, a big brother,” said Joseph.
Professional quietude has been a consistent trait of the Rock Hill defensive backs that have reached the NFL. Chris Hope and Sheldon Brown were much the same way. All have experienced great success as pros. Joseph, and now Gilmore, are just the latest. It’s a style that differs greatly from a Richard Sherman or DeAngelo Hall-type of brashness.
“I’m kind of the same way, I really don’t talk much,” said Joseph. “We’re both fiery guys from a competitive standpoint. But from a standpoint of an interview or in front of the camera, mouthing off and things like that, we’re both not that guy. But in Richard Sherman’s case, that’s been him his whole life, so that’s the way he’s able to play. For me looking at him being successful, I tip my hat to him. A lot of guys, once they get the hype and the notoriety that comes with the level they’re playing at, they tend to forget the hard work that they did before they got where they’re at.”
Sherman has been able to back up his talk so far, especially after helping lead the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl in February.
“I never really was a talkative person like that,” said Gilmore. “I just always handled my business and worked hard.”
A model sibling
That doesn’t mean Gilmore harbors no aspirations of greatness. Far from it.
As a toddler, Stephon and Steven Sr. studied Deion Sanders’ football games, and Stephon would mimic Prime Time’s moves. And Linda Gilmore remembers Stephon bawling after his first baseball loss.
“Like, big, round tears,” Linda remembers.
Gilmore hasn’t lost many games since, and his personal standards – spurred in part by Steven Sr., who was a very good high school basketball player – have only ever increased.
“My goal is to be one of the top defensive backs in the league,” Gilmore said. “I want to have the best season a defensive back can have. Individually, I want to make the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team.”
Joseph has made the Pro Bowl twice and was selected as an alternate two more times in his nine-year NFL career. More often than not, cornerbacks make the news for the wrong reason, for getting smoked on a fly route, or pass interfering on a game-winning drive. Joseph knows Gilmore’s consistency will pay off, that he’ll get in the public eye for the right reasons.
“The more guys that see you putting in work on a consistent basis, that’s the way your name gets out there,” said Joseph. “It’s always good to have a (Pro Bowl) nod, but if you put up the same production as those guys and don’t get the notoriety, I’m sure everyone else in your organization and throughout the league takes notice of what you’re doing through film.”
The oldest of Steven and Linda Gilmore’s six kids, Gilmore has always been the head of the pack. His other siblings, four sisters and a brother, all vary slightly in personality. Steven Jr., 10 years younger than Stephon, is the talker. But Stephon is undoubtedly the quiet leader, in age and personality.
“He’s like an older man in a young body,” Linda said.
Only in the third year of his NFL career, Gilmore is expected to continue to grow into the same kind of role with the Bills, a leader that can shut down the opposing team’s best receiver with little or no extra help. A big year for Gilmore would lift an already solid Buffalo defense, which in turn may lead to some national recognition for the cornerback.
Just don’t expect to hear about it from Gilmore.
“He’s not the kind of guy patting himself on the back trying to say how good he can play,” said Henderson. “That’s not him. He was raised the right way. Any accolades that comes his way, I guarantee you he’s not gonna tell you he received it.”