The FPC grad is competing for a starting safety spot with the Tigers.
Three years ago, Marquise Gilbert was a freshman defensive back at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. He knew he could play at a higher level, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get there.
Now, the former Flagler Palm Coast High School football player is in the running to be a starting safety at Auburn University.
“I'm excited, man. I’m excited,” he said in a recent phone call from Auburn, Alabama. “I'm ready to just get it going. We're getting closer to the season. So, I'm excited about fall camp.”
Gilbert was the top-rated junior college safety in the country out of Hutchinson Community College in Kansas when he signed with Auburn in December, turning down offers from Tennessee and Florida State.
Soon after Gilbert enrolled at the Southeastern Conference school in January, Auburn’s coaches knew he belonged.
“I see him doing big things for us this coming fall,” Tigers defensive backs coach Zac Etheridge was quoted in Rivals.com in March. “He seeks contact. He’s got a lot of range, a lot of physicality that he brings to the team, and you just love what he’s doing.”
“In junior college, you're relying on your talent and technique, but in Division I, you have to really break the game of football down and play smart. It's more of a mental game than it is physical.”
— MARQUISE GILBERT
Going from junior college to the SEC is a big jump for Gilbert, who has three years of eligibility remaining.
“The game speed is a lot faster,” he said. “And there are a lot more details in playing the safety position. In junior college, you're relying on your talent and technique, but in Division I, you have to really break the game of football down and play smart. It's more of a mental game than it is physical.”
Former FPC football coach Travis Roland — now the head coach at Mainland High — said Gilbert had a chance to sign with Iowa State or South Carolina if he had not been a late qualifier out of high school. By the time he got his test scores, Bethune-Cookman was one of his few remaining options.
He played three games for the Wildcats before deciding to transfer.
“I went with the school that gave me the opportunity,” he said of B-CU. “It was a great program. It was just that I was living in Daytona at the time, and it was just too close to home. I needed to get away, and I knew there was a bigger calling for me, and I trusted that and went on with my journey.”
He reached out on Twitter to Hutchinson Community College defensive backs coach Maurice Gray, who got back to him within 30 minutes.
“I just knew that Hutch was a top JUCO program and Coach Gray was one of their defensive back coaches," Gilbert said. "I sent them my film and he said, ‘If you come to Hutch and do what you put on film at FPC, you will be great.’”
Roland said at the time he was not in favor of Gilbert's move.
“I’m a very safe guy, so I’m like, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it.’ "He said, ‘Coach, I feel like I can do better, I can do more.’ And he proved it. It shows that if you believe in yourself, great things can happen.”
— TRAVIS ROLAND
“I’m a very safe guy, so I’m like, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it.’” Roland said. “He said, ‘Coach, I feel like I can do better, I can do more.’ And he proved it. It shows that if you believe in yourself, great things can happen.”
Gray was the conduit of those great things.
“He’s a great coach,” Gilbert said of Gray, who is now the defensive passing game coordinator at Butler Community College (which is also in Kansas).
“He took my confidence to another whole level. He kept me level-headed. He talked to me when I needed to be talked to. He even had me playing (cornerback) in games. I never played corner before, but I had so much confidence in him as a coach, I believed in myself that I could do it. So just the confidence he instilled in me, just the realness he had, I trusted him. I trusted him in every situation. That's really, how I'm here, honestly.”
Gilbert’s first season at Hutchinson was delayed due to COVID. He registered 12 tackles and two interceptions in seven games in the spring of 2021, and the Blue Dragons won the JUCO national championship. In the fall of 2021, he had 25 tackles and two pass breakups in 10 games.
He said he chose Auburn over offers from every Power Five conference partly because Etheridge reminded him of Gray.
“I felt some type of similarity between those two,” he said. “And it gave me that home feel. I love the atmosphere.”
SHIFTING FROM QUARTERBACK
Roland had just been hired at FPC in the winter of 2017 when he saw Gilbert for the first time. Gilbert was playing quarterback in an 8-on-8 game. The players had to play both ways. But Gilbert saw himself as a quarterback.
“I’m not a huge fan of 8-on-8 football,” Roland said. “But I went out and watched and saw this kid play both ways. I asked an offensive lineman, ‘Who’s this guy playing safety? He’s hitting people.’ I saw his aggression; I saw his length. I knew he could do something special.”
Gilbert never did play quarterback for the Bulldogs. He had a total of 10 interceptions his junior and senior years in 2017 and 2018, and he helped lead FPC to its first undefeated regular season in 2017.
“It took him time to realize how good he could be,” Roland said. “I pushed him. Once he committed himself in the weight room, that changed everything. I knew he was just as capable as some of the big-time players we’ve been lucky to coach. He and Dennis (Shorter) did such a good job for us.”
Gilbert said fellow defensive backs Shorter, who is now playing for the University of South Dakoda, and Damien Irvan helped him become comfortable with the position.
“I started liking it more and more and Coach Roland taught me new techniques,” Gilbert said.
Qualifying late and then feeling his future was uncertain when he was at B-CU were the two lowest points in his life, Gilbert said.
“He showed patience,” Roland said. “And that’s how you can help yourself.”
“I'm just grateful to be in the position I’m in,” Gilbert said. “I just want to thank God for allowing me to keep moving forward and keeping my head on straight, and I want to thank everybody for supporting me and wishing me well on my journey here at Auburn.”