Mark Gilbert considered himself a basketball player before moving to Fayetteville from Pittsburgh in 2010.
But soon after the move his father, also Mark, suggested him give football a try. Eight years later, the younger Gilbert has become one of the nation's top football cornerbacks at Duke University and is a potential first-round pick if he decides to enter the 2019 National Football League draft.
“Fayetteville is kind of where a lot of this football stuff started,'' Gilbert said. “I originally started playing football because my father talked me into. He always regretted not going out for football. So I listened to him and tried out for both. I kind of went through high school and the recruitment process with football and basketball. But I like to say all the time that in the end football chose me.''
Gilbert, a Terry Sanford graduate, will be one of 28 former Cape Fear region high school players on Football Bowl Division rosters when the 2018 college season kicks off later this month. Among those are Clemson offensive lineman Sean Pollard (Pinecrest), Georgia center Lamont Gaillard (Pine Forest), Florida State defensive tackle Arthur Williams (E.E. Smith) and Notre Dame running back Jahmir Smith (Lee County).
But it's the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Gilbert who enters 2018 as the region's most prominent FBS player.
A breakout sophomore campaign during which Gilbert tied for third nationally in passes defended (21) and interceptions (6) earned him first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors and has led to a long list of preseason accolades entering his junior year. He's been tabbed as a first-team All-American by Street & Smith's College Football Yearbook, and made the second team compiled by Athlon Sports and Lindy's Sports. Voters at the annual ACC Football Kickoff last month also picked Gilbert for the preseason all-conference club.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe compares Gilbert to a basketball point guard, which is exactly the position he played while leading Terry Sanford to the state 3-A championship as a junior. Gilbert averaged 18 points a game and scored 31 in the title game against Gastonia Ashbrook to win game most valuable player honors.
“That's kind of how he plays corner,'' Cutcliffe said during the ACC Kickoff. “He commands the court. Being a point guard means you've got great vision. You have great anticipation.
“Mark has a lot of athleticism. He's long. He's got a lot of skill physically. But he also has a great mind and great eyes, which is what it takes to play corner, as well.''
Cutcliffe isn't the only one to notice Gilbert's talents. Professional scouts are already sizing up Gilbert, too. In a recent mock draft produced by the Bleacher Report website has Gilbert projected as the 16th overall selection going to the San Francisco 49ers.
Of course, that's all assuming Gilbert leaves Duke a year early. But another all-star season with the Blue Devils in 2018 could make that decision easier.
“I haven't really seen any of the mock drafts or projections,'' Gilbert said. “I'm not focusing on that right now. I feel like that would be a bad look coming into this season if I was worrying about that. I'm not worried about the pros, or anything NFL-wise. My focus is on the upcoming season.''
Gilbert will also be helping mentor another Cape Fear region player this season. Southern Lee High grad Nate Thompson is a freshman safety for the Blue Devils.
“His locker is right next to mine, so we talk all the time,'' Gilbert said. “I always try to give the new guys coming in some words of advice about the things I've learned here.
“We're from the same area, so I know he's played against great competition. Playing football in Fayetteville made me better because I was playing against great players. We had teams like Seventy-First, who was a powerhouse at the time, and E.E. Smith, which was very good. Playing teams like that made me better, and I think it's done the same for Nate.''
Staff writer Sammy Batten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-486-3534.