Curtis Gatewood sets the bar

Vanderbilt defensive end Curtis Gatewood still remembers the day he decided to play football. It was way back in fourth grade and, believe it or not, it was during soccer practice.

Gatewood and his friends were eating orange slices and drinking water during a break when a football coach looked over at them and yelled to his squad: "Okay, go over there and get some orange slices like those sissy soccer players."

Gatewood just shrugged, he knew he could play football, and if only that old football coach could see him now.

After starring at White Station High School in Memphis, he signed with Vandy, developing into a force on the line. Gatewood led the Commodores with seven sacks last season and the rising senior is far from done harassing SEC quarterbacks.

His goal for 2007?

Fifteen sacks.

"That's really ambitious, but I like to set the bar high," Gatewood said.

He always pushes himself, whether it's in practices or games. Gatewood's speed can change the course of a play, a series, a game. "I don't think Curtis Gatewood can go at a slow speed. For him, he always plays fast," Vanderbilt defensive line coach Rick Logo said. "It would be hard for me to tell him to slow down; I don't think he knows how." Logo first saw Gatewood during spring practice of 2006 and he made quite an impression on him.

"He's the kind of guy that you'd always point out that this is the speed we have to play as a defensive unit," Logo said. Gatewood's journey to Nashville wasn't an easy one. He burnt out after playing lineman and wide receiver at St. Paul Elementary. Gatewood even contemplated giving the sport up. Imagine if he returned to the soccer fields. However, the head coach at Havenview Middle School saw Gatewood's potential and encouraged him to keep playing. According to Gatewood, the coach told him: "I like your size and your frame. I saw how you played at St. Paul and I want you to come and play for us. I have a position for you and I'm going to help you enjoy the game."

And the kid who originally played football just to prove he wasn't a sissy, developed a love for the game. Gatewood was also pretty damn good.

"He taught me the game and I developed a passion for it," Gatewood said. "I think that's where it all started."

Gatewood graduated from Havenview and moved on to White Station, where he played football and basketball. No soccer. After playing both sports during his freshman and sophomore years, Gatewood decided it was best to concentrate on the sport that he most enjoyed: basketball.

Gatewood had played that sport for years and dreamed of playing it in college some day. His mother was a huge basketball fan and fully supported his decision to not play football during his junior season.

"She just didn't want me to get hurt. I think she loves basketball," Gatewood said. "She's like a sports fanatic but her favorite sport is basketball."

But Gatewood returned to the gridiron as a senior and earned a full ride to Vandy. He also received offers from Mississippi State, Tennessee Tech, Memphis, but, for the most part, flew under the recruiting radar. Nobody ever heard about me or knew about me," Gatewood said. "We sent my highlight tapes to a couple of schools and the word got out and a couple schools recruited me." Gatewood played linebacker as a freshman and sophomore, moving to defensive end during the spring of 2006. Not only did Gatewood have seven sacks last year, but he added 10.5 tackles for a loss. The most at Vandy in a long, long time. Gatewood started every game at defensive end and earned codefensive MVP with defensive tackle Theo Horrocks.

It's no wonder Vandy coach Bobby Johnson has such high expectations for him this fall. "Curtis is one of those full speed kind of guys. It's just fun to watch him play football," Johnson said. "We expect a big year out of him. I think he's developed his leadership capabilities and our guys look to Curtis to make big plays and set the tone in practice. He sure sets it in practice, he goes full speed all the time."

Gatewood has NFL inspirations and if Gatewood has a special season maybe it can happen. Logo said "Gatewood is already learning from the pros." Logo continued, "He's been able to watch cut ups of different schools, what they are doing in the NFL, and he's bringing those tangibles to the defensive line. You think about defensive linemen going against offensive linemen, you think about players locking up and grinding in there. Curtis can do that but he can also run a route. He can do both and there are not a lot of people that can catch him and there's not a lot of people that can lock up on him because he's starting to understand that leverage, speed and agility is going to help him beat a lot of blocks that he's going to face." Gatewood was used as speed defensive end in 2006, but is expected to play more in all situations during 2007. He could play a big part in Vandy improving on last year's 4-8 record. The Commodores return nine players on offense and eight on defense, including linebacker Jonathan Goff, an NFL prospect. Goff and Gatewood could make a nice combo. How's this for a nickname: The Killer G's.

The pundits are already talking about Vandy's hellish road slate this fall: Auburn, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee. It could be tough a road. But if Gatewood plays like the way he plans, it will make life much easier for Vandy. Thank God Gatewood gave up soccer and basketball. Top Stories