Joe Gilbert comes to Illinois from Houston, where he coached offensive line one season. He also coached at Central Florida and Toledo among other stops on his resume. His work with offensive linemen came highly recommended, as did his recruiting ability. He is happy to be at Illinois.
"I couldn't be more thrilled than to be at the University of Illinois. Having coached at Toledo for four years, I understand the value of the Big Ten. I'm excited about the opportunity. It's been an easy transition for me. Coach Zook's been wonderful."
As much as he wanted to meet with the linemen already on campus, recruiting was his first priority since the signing day for high school prospects is less than two weeks away. He wants to keep committed prospects in the fold.
"When I got the job, I didn't even head right here to Champaign. I flew to Florida. And this next week, I'll be going out to see the guys that aren't coming in this weekend."
Illinois fans will be thrilled by the prospect of Gilbert recruiting Texas athletes as that state is always loaded with players. And he has no qualms about recruiting some of the same players he was working with at Houston.
"I have a job to do. I'm here to recruit for the University of Illinois and get players here to help us win a Big Ten Championship."
Joe has contacts over vast areas of Texas.
"I had the Northern part of Houston, kind of the Spring, Klein area, and then I had all of central Texas, from Victoria all the way up to Killeen and San Antonio to the West. So I had the largest area on the staff as far as number of schools go.
"I will head down there next week and do my best. I figure I have a pretty good list of juniors, so I'll go down there and start looking for them. Hopefully, we will find one or two who want to travel up North and play in the Big Ten."
Texas isn't his only area of expertise. He also developed a number of contacts with his jobs at Central Florida and Toledo.
"For one year (at Central Florida) I had the Panhandle, everything from Tallahassee over to Pensacola. And then the last two to three years I had all of South Florida, Broward, Palm Beach County, North Dade. And obviously, I coached at Toledo for four years, and I recruited a majority of Michigan and Northwest Ohio."
He doesn't have a specific set of territories assigned to him by Coach Zook for recruiting as yet, but he doesn't really care as long as he can look for top prospects.
"I'll just go wherever the coach tells me to go. But I have always enjoyed the recruiting aspect, meeting high school coaches and kids. That's why you love this game. You have an opportunity to work with young men and develop them not just as players but as people."
Gilbert hadn't met new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz prior to his interview with Illinois. But subsequent meetings have been positive.
"I knew of Mike, but I had not met him before. I met with him and the rest of the staff at the national convention. And then when I flew up here, I met with him for three hours, just the two of us. I'm real excited about the opportunity. It's an important fit for an offensive coordinator and line coach to be on the same page. It's kind of nice to come in with him at the same time so we do kind of have a mutual bond. It will be a good fit."
He wants to know his players as people and not just athletes. He didn't get that chance when Illinois' present offensive linemen were being recruited, so he wants to make up for lost time.
"When I talk with our offensive linemen here, it's not just football I'm talking to them about, it's where they're from, mom and dad, brothers and sisters. I'm trying to get a relationship with these guys. Because that's important."
He has definite ideas as to what he wants in offensive linemen.
"In my opinion, we want guys that are tall. That is a key to it, long arms and they can bend. If guys are flexible and can bend, they'll get stronger in the weight room. The other thing is I want tough guys. This is one position where you can't hide. You butt heads every single snap.
"And they've got to have a great work ethic. It's a hard position, a lunch pail position. You're gonna get down and get dirty. I also think they need to be the kind of guy who enjoys technique and pays attention to detail."
Joe plans to test his men during practice, but he knows when they need encouragement and confidence also.
"I will get after them. My philosophy is, you try to put a lot of pressure on them during practice. And then game day is a different deal. You've got to coach them up, make adjustments, and keep a clear head. There's times you've got to jump them, but that's what you do Sunday to Friday. By that time, they should be ready to step in and perform."
Like most offensive line coaches, Gilbert prefers minimal substitutions if possible.
"I truly believe in playing five guys, as long as they sustain their ability to play for four quarters. It's very important. When you play offensive line, you get into a mesh with the guys next to you. You can almost understand without saying anything what that guy's gonna do. When you're substituting guys with the offensive line, it will screw up that comaraderie. So I do believe in playing the best five guys.
If there are six guys who are really good football players, we're gonna have to play six. Or if we have seven, we'll play seven. But I do think if we can get five guys that can play together, I would like to do that."
Joe has no preconceived ideas about his players, so each one is starting fresh in an effort to earn playing time.
"I told all the kids to be excited because I don't know a lot about any of them. We've got to have a depth chart set to start somewhere, but to me every one of them has a chance to come out and make an impression. Whether it's in the weight room right now or when we get into drills. A guy who may have been in the doghouse, I'm just starting to know the kid. So he's not there yet with me. Everybody's got a clean slate."