High School Sports

Stephon Gilmore poised to become NFL first round draft pick

The college coach who’s worked with some of the best thinks he can be their equal.

But the NFL veteran who watched him grow up refuses to label him that way, for the simple reason that he could surpass them all.

That’s why the next week will be an exciting one for Rock Hill’s Stephon Gilmore, who’s gone from star quarterback at South Pointe High School to a first-round pick in the NFL Draft with astonishing speed.

None of that has changed the South Carolina cornerback’s willingness to work — diligently and humbly — which is as much of the reason he’s in this spot as well.

The weeks preceding the draft have been a blur, but he’s looking forward to getting to New York next Tuesday, settling in, and waiting for a dream to come true on Thursday.

“This is what I’ve been working for my entire life,” the 21-year-old Gilmore said last week. “Now I just have to wait and see who falls in love with me.”

That won’t be a long wait, because he’ll have plenty of suitors. The decision to leave South Carolina was an easy one, as he stands to follow in the footsteps of local products such as Rick Sanford, Jeff Burris, Benjamin Watson and Johnathan Joseph as a first-round pick.

“I’m a big fan of Gilmore,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I think he’s a Top-10 or 12 player in this draft.”

The interest has been extreme the last month, with visits to teams having him hop-scotching the country. He was most recently in Buffalo (where the Bills pick 10th overall), but he’s seen a lot of airports lately. He laughed and said he didn’t want to reveal all the stops since teams asked him not to, but the one benefit is that he gets to keep his frequent flier miles.

But it’s the teams that have played against him that know getting anything through the air on him is the hard part.

South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward knows about defensive back talent. He coached DeAngelo Hall when he was at Virginia Tech, and got to work with Nnamdi Asomugha in Oakland.

Their games sprang to mind when asked to describe Gilmore’s ascent — which mirrors his 4.3-second 40 times in swiftness.

“Stephon has all the same physical gifts as those two guys, those two All-Pros,” Ward said. “But what makes him so good is his mentality, and the way he goes about studying the game. You can tell he wants it because of the way he works.

“From his first day on campus, he walked into practice and wanted the best we had. In one-on-ones, he always wanted (star receiver) Alshon (Jeffery), because he wanted to push himself against the best.”

Gilmore’s athletic gifts earned him early notice. As the star quarterback for the Stallions, he led them to a perfect 15-0 season and a state championship, combining for more than 3,000 yards and 37 touchdowns

That quickly garnered the eyes of the men he looked up to, who will soon be his peers.

Former NFL linebacker Gerald Dixon, who spent nine years in the league with Cleveland, San Diego and Cincinnati and is now an assistant coach at Rock Hill High, admitted the matchup was a difficult one.

“You could just tell,” Dixon said. “He was the kind of kid, if he was on the bus, you knew he’d be a matchup problem. He could have played any position on the field and been dominant.

“You can’t prepare for that at the high school level.”

Likewise, Sheldon Brown said he first recalled seeing Gilmore play in ninth grade. The high school heroics showed the raw physical talent, but the last three years as a starter in college were what told Brown that Gilmore was on the path to become something special.

“I don’t want to compare him to anybody I’ve seen in the pros,” Brown said. “You don’t want to say a name, because I’ll be honest, I think he can be one of the best cornerbacks in the game.

“When you look at his talent and the way he goes about his business, there’s just nothing he can’t do.”

Having so many NFL stars to look up to growing up doubtless helped his process. But those who know the unassuming Gilmore said that shared approach is what makes him special, if not unique.

“He’s not about just being a first-round pick,” Dixon said. “He’s going to be a Pro Bowl player, you can see that writing on the wall. But he doesn’t act that way.”

Agent Jason Chayut represents Brown, Joseph, Gilmore and a number of other NFL stars, and said he’s been impressed by the common thread that runs through his clients from this area.

“There’s a quiet confidence about Stephon, and a humility you don’t see often,” Chayut said. “To be as talented as he is and to be without an arrogance is really a staple of those Rock Hill kids. They know how to straddle that line between confidence and arrogance.

“When you’re around him, you just marvel at his personality. Sheldon Brown is as bright of a player as you’re going to find in the NFL, and Stephon has a lot of those same traits. Just knowing what it takes, the football intelligence, the understanding of the game.”

In short, he’s special, without acting special.

While it sounds simple, those traits can be rare at his level. When you’re told how gifted you are from an early age, sometimes you listen to it a little too often. Things are assumed, taken for granted.

If that’s the case, the NFL will be a hard reality, because everyone there can run as fast as you.

Brown’s earned his 10-year NFL career the hard way. While a talented player, the former second-round pick is entering his second decade in the league because he’s smart, because he sees, because he gets it.

And that’s what he likes the most Gilmore.

“You can just tell the way he was raised, was that hard work speaks louder than anything he could say,” Brown said. “That comes from what you learn at home, growing up. He’s a respectful person. Stephon was a very mature kid, even when he was in high school.

“He was all-world from an early age, but you never got that impression from him because of the way he carried himself.”

That kind of center and focus is perhaps most evident in Gilmore’s approach to the final week of his amateur career.

While many would be out spending the money he’s about to make, surrounding himself with the trinkets and crowds that come with instant wealth, Gilmore had a different idea.

“I had to get away from everybody for a minute,” Gilmore said with a laugh as he unpacked his bags in Columbia, dashing straight back to school after finishing his last pre-draft visit last week.

He knew if he came back home to Rock Hill, he’d be surrounded by friends and family, and all the well-wishers who watched him grow up. That would have been nice, but it would have also kept him from what he knows he needs.

“I had to get back to Columbia for one simple reason,” he said. “With all this traveling, I haven’t been able to get a decent workout in for weeks.

“I know what I need to do to get myself ready, so that’s why I came back down here — to just get done the work I need to do.”

Darin Gantt •  326-4312