“Dex and I actually lost in the first round, but Dex and I became real tight after that,” Gilbert said. “From the moment we lost to the moment we were inside of the basketball arena watching the game, we were talking the whole time. Dexter and I had some pretty intense and pretty deep conversations about the recruiting [process]… We talked about what’s going to go down in the future and Dexter is a pretty down dude. That’s my man.”
Make no mistake about it, teaming Gilbert and Lawrence was a strategic move by the UNC staff. It would have been easy to pair Gilbert with his cousin Mark, a safety from Fayetteville (N.C.) Sanford.
Lawrence, a four-star defensive tackle from Wake Forest (N.C.), doesn’t claim any favorite schools, but Gilbert holds a top five consisting of UNC, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia. Gilbert says things are even among his quintet, but the Tar Heels have been a constant favorite for much of his recruitment.
“A lot of things have evened the field out, because things are starting to pick up,” Gilbert said. “Like, I’m starting to get things from Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State – I’m starting to get a lot of Big Ten interest. Things are just evening out with Chapel Hill, Pittsburgh, and new offers Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Tennessee. It’s the communication. I’ve been talking to Tennessee coaches; I talk to a Virginia Tech coach; I talk to Coach Galloway [at West Virginia], who writes me mail; and of course I’ve been talking to coaches from Chapel Hill and Pittsburgh.”
Going back to Mark Gilbert, the two cousins have discussed playing at the same college since they were kids.
“Conversations about playing together have been put on hold,” Gilbert said. “Yes, since we were little kids, we wanted to drive the same car, live beside each other, and go to the same college. But there might be a better opportunity for him at one school and a better opportunity for me at another. So we might go our separate ways. Or we could find one school where the opportunity is best for both of us. We don’t know.”
Gilbert says the chances of he and his cousin ending up at the same college are “bright.” He lists UNC, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia as the schools most likely to facilitate a uniting. Though the staff is highly interested, UNC has yet to offer Mark. Additionally, both Gilberts are from Pittsburgh and have several family ties to Pitt, including Zack’s father’s alma mater.
Before arriving in Chapel Hill for UNC’s Junior Day on Saturday, Gilbert made a brief visit to nearby Duke.
“It was a great experience seeing Duke,” Gilbert said. “And then I went over to the ‘live’ campus, Chapel Hill, where everything was just bumping and it was just a whole different atmosphere. Duke was more about the business. Chapel Hill was more about having fun and entertainment.”
UNC was more “live” and “bumping” because it was host of the UNC-Duke basketball. Plus, the UNC staff had the junior day’s schedule chockfull of unique activities, such as the aforementioned corn hole tournament.
“I loved it – I loved every bit of it,” Gilbert said. “… Other junior days are about business, but this junior day was more about having fun, communicating, and bonding. And I think that was unique and one of a kind.”
For much of the day, Gilbert was shadowed by Gunter Brewer, his primary recruiter.
“Coach Brew was fired up,” Gilbert said. “He was excited that I was there – he was excited a lot of recruits were there.”
During dinner that evening, Gilbert shared a table with John Papuchis, one of UNC’s new defensive coaches.
“We were just talking about coordination, being able to use the hips and the legs without using the arms and the shoulders,” Gilbert said. “And we were talking about things that were going to progress in the Chapel Hill locker room, things that were going down with Chapel Hill.”
Shortly after walking into the Smith Center to watch the UNC-Duke basketball game, Gilbert was stopped by UNC’s newly hired defensive coordinator, Gene Chizik.
“We were walking out the tunnel and he came up to me and was like, ‘Zack Gilbert, I can’t believe I haven’t been able to talk to you,’” Gilbert said. “We’ve been looking to have a conversation with each other this whole [recruiting] process, but it’s been hectic. So the fact that I got to see him and meet him was good – it wasn’t for long, but it was good.”
Brewer, Chizik, and Papuchis touched briefly on the status of UNC’s defensive line coach, which was vacant at the time.
“They told me that Coach [Keith] Gilmore was with Notre Dame,” Gilbert said. “They didn’t touch on [his replacement]. They want me to come up for a practice – and I think I might do that – and I think that’s when we’ll talk about that more and I’ll meet the new D-line coach.”
The coaches were also vague about how Gilbert would fit into the defensive scheme Chizik is installing at UNC.
“He just talked about D-line and I’m sure he’s just talking about D-end,” Gilbert said. “But I tell the coaches all the time: if they want me to play anything else – if they want me to play defensive tackle, if they want me to play running back, if they want me to play middle linebacker, if they want me to play safety – I’ll do it. Whatever it takes to make a program better.”
Besides UNC, Gilbert has attended junior days at Duke and NC State. In the coming months, he plans to visit Clemson, Ohio State, Penn State, Pittsburgh, and South Carolina.