Transfer LB Jack Gibbens' immediate impact eases pressure on Minnesota's defense
MINNEAPOLIS — Trust.
It’s a concept that permeates the Minnesota football lexicon, an Urban Dictionary of sorts in its own right that players who have been around here a while have pretty much memorized.
“Trust comes down to time, consistency and proof,” coach PJ Fleck often says, quoting famed comic book writer and magazine editor Kevin Eastman.
When it’s there, it allows a team full of 3-star recruits to whip programs with more clout and more recent tradition. When it’s not, you see breakdowns like you did all too often as Minnesota struggled to stop just about every team it faced last season.
When teams have gashed the Gophers, the linebacking corps often has gotten a lot of the blame. Too often, the middle level of Joe Rossi Jr.’s defense has tried to over-compensate. That has led to unplugged gaps, which Big Ten running backs are all too good at exploiting.
A lot of it, the coaching staff will tell you now, came down to trust. No matter the scheme, sound linebacker play relies on trusting the guy in front of you to gum up the line of scrimmage and the guy next to you to be in the right spot so you can do likewise.
Enter Jack Gibbens.
The heady graduate transfer from FCS Abilene Christian is one big reason why Minnesota is coming off a 30-0 win at Colorado and playing much better defense than it did a year ago — even in defeat to Ohio State and in a narrow victory over Miami (Ohio). There are a lot of other factors: an improved secondary, lots of help up front, and a pass rush led by Boye Mafe and Thomas Rush that’s suddenly adequate.
But behind Gibbens’ 16 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and forced fumble in 3 games is a measure of reliability that Minnesota was severely lacking a year ago.
“He fits perfectly with us — the program, the culture, the system,” Fleck said. “He’s a really, really, really good football player.”
Fleck has been reluctant to publicly praise the transfer portal, but between Gibbens and a boost of size and talent on the defensive line, dipping into it has paid off so far this season. Gibbens credits Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney, veteran Micah Drew-Treadway and others for making his life easier.
“It’s super fun to play behind those guys,” Gibbens said, “because … we get to just run over top and try to make tackles because those guys are getting double teamed and holding the line of scrimmage so [opposing offensive linemen] don’t get to the second level.”
In 4 years at Abilene Christian, Gibbens was a monster. The Spring Branch, Texas native tallied 258 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks and 5 interceptions in 4 seasons and was a 2020 finalist for the Campbell Trophy, also known as the “Academic Heisman.”
Gibbens’ extra year of eligibility thanks to COVID-19, plus a desire to see how he could hang at the Power 5 level, combined with the Gophers’ need for depth at linebacker, made for a perfect marriage. Gibbens enrolled at Minnesota in time for most of winter conditioning and spring practice.
“Everybody on an FCS school wants to prove they can play at this level,” Gibbens said.
But not everyone can make the jump so quickly.
Going against one of the largest and most experienced offensive lines in practice every day has helped, Gibbens said.
“Especially coming from the level I was playing at, we weren’t playing guys that were 350 pounds,” Gibbens said with a grin. “That was something that definitely helped, I think, all spring and fall camp just to kind of get ready for this season, was going against those guys every day. They’re big and physical and they get after it, for sure.”
But perhaps the biggest reason for Gibbens’ ascent comes back to the trust factor. It’s a mutual thing among him, his coaches and teammates.
“I feel like I’ve been here a long time, and it’s been like nine months,” Gibbens said ahead of 2-1 Minnesota’s 11 a.m. tilt Saturday against Bowling Green on ESPNU. “These guys kind of accepted me and the other guys that came in with open arms. We just kind of hit the ground running. I think the connectivity of this team made that transition super easy. It’s just a bunch of guys who really care about each other and want to win and want to work.”