12/11/05 — Falcon senior a ball hawk

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Falcon senior a ball hawk

By Gabe Whisnant
Published in Sports on December 11, 2005 2:12 AM

Free safety: Defined as one of the two defensive backs deepest in the field who isn't assigned a particular area or player to cover and is thus "free" to follow the play anywhere it goes and generally must be a solid pass defender.

Cortez Gilbert's picture might as well be beside that definition.

As the anchor and captain of Charles B. Aycock's defense, the 6-foot, 170-pound senior roamed the field in search of ball-carriers and pass-receivers and stopped just about everything that came his way. By season's end, Gilbert had accumulated 123 solo tackles and 51 assists, a school record for tackles in a season. He also picked off three passes with 109 yards of return yardage with one touchdown.

On top of the gaudy statistics, Gilbert, a three-year starter, was a "coach on the field" for Randy Pinkowski's squad that gave up 256 yards per game with a county-best, two shutouts.

"My previous years were the years to learn, and this year was my year to have freedom on the field," Gilbert said. "Coach didn't really have to tell me what to do. He told the line backers and defensive line what to do, and I told the defensive backs what to do. If we needed help on the run, that's where I was. If we needed help on the pass, that's where I was."

For his ability to direct Aycock's defense and help lead his team to another Class 3-A (small school) playoff trip, Gilbert is the 2005 News-Argus Defensive Player of the Year.

That on-field leadership was crucial this year for the Golden Falcons, who returned just three defensive starters and lost 2004 Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker and captain Turner Wood. From the onset of the 2005 season, Gilbert began proving he could step into those big shoes -- once in a loss and once in a win.

In the second game of the season, the safety had 16 total tackles with six assists and one sack during a tough loss at Clayton. Two games later at Goldsboro, he registered 18 tackles with nine assists and ran back an interception 45 yards for a touchdown to give his team a 13-0 lead at the time.

That was just two times in a season that saw Gilbert turn in multiple games with 10-plus tackles.

As solid as Gilbert was at free safety, he proved effective and dangerous at other positions as well.

He touched the ball 30 times on either punt or kick returns and racked up 454 yards of return yardage with one touchdown. Used in spots as a running back, he carried the ball 46 times for 406 yards with eight touchdowns, while catching 10 passes for 168 yards with three touchdowns.

Combined in all facets, Gilbert accumulated 1,137 yards with 13 touchdowns.

"After the game I rushed for 182 yards (against Kinston), I wanted to get back on offense a little bit more, because I felt my rhythm," Gilbert said. "Then, I would get back on defense and feel that hitting. It was tearing at me on both sides.

"I like to make touchdowns. Anyway I can get them, I'll take them."

The question now isn't, if Gilbert will take his versatile "touchdown making" ability to the college level? The question is where will he decide to go? He's made visits to numerous schools, including N.C. State, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Clemson and South Carolina and still has official visits set for Coastal Carolina and Western Carolina.

Gilbert insists he won't make a final decision until after he participates for the North Carolina team in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas game next Saturday at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.

"I don't want a college that's just like home, but I want something similar to home," he said. "I want to go to a school that can teach me what I need and to give me the skills I need at the next level or above. Monday after the Shrine Bowl, I'll probably have it down pat."

As for what he's leaving behind at Aycock?

"Year in and year out, people are going to talk about the year Aycock brought home a playoff game (2004)," Gilbert said. "I'm just waiting for 10 years down the line to come home and people will be like, 'you were on that team that won the first home playoff game.'"

Falcons' fans will likely remember more than that about Gilbert, especially considering how he led the team that followed in 2005.