Their collegiate careers have taken similar paths.
They stepped on campus as raw athletes with unique talent, they flashed that ability as true freshmen and they began to turn their potential into production as sophomores.
Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham are two of college football’s toughest individual matchups. And they’ll battle each other on Friday in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
Gilbert, a senior, is projected to be a first round NFL draft pick after a stellar final season for the Cowboys. Green-Beckham, a sophomore, will play on Sundays someday and ranks No. 6 on ESPN.com’s list of top 25 non-eligible NFL prospects ($) in college football.
The Cotton Bowl provides Gilbert one last opportunity against an NFL-level talent in Green-Beckham after a disappointing junior year. He was a star as a sophomore and looked like a guy who would be NFL-bound when he initially arrived at OSU but the struggles in 2012 led to his return for his final season.
“I felt I owed this team a lot more than I gave them last year,” Gilbert said. “During the season last year Coach [Mike] Gundy brought me in and had a little talk about the production I wasn’t having and how they expected more out of me and they knew what I could do.”
Gilbert took those words to heart, becoming one of the nation’s best cornerbacks and a finalist for the Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive back. Gilbert’s stellar play has made OSU defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer’s job easier during his first year running the Cowboys’ defense. For opposing receivers, Gilbert has been like the fly you can’t get rid, keeps showing up at the most inopportune times and making life much more unpleasant than it should be.
“I’ve asked him to do some more difficult things this year than I have in the past, played more aggressive out there on the corner, some stuff schematically we’ve never done here at Oklahoma State before,” Spencer said. “I would not have been able to do those things if it wasn’t for [Gilbert].”
Now Gilbert faces one of his most difficult tests in his final college game. Green-Beckham, also known as DGB, was the No. 3 player in the ESPN 300 for the Class of 2012. At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, DGB combines the size of a tight end with the speed and athleticism of a man half his size. In the SEC title game against Auburn, Green-Beckham had six receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns. He gave SEC defensive coordinators nightmares with 55 receptions for 830 yards and 12 touchdowns this year, taking a clear step forward during his second collegiate season.
“It’s just being comfortable really,” he said of his improvement. “Looking at last year’s season [I had] that freshman mind, but this year I felt like I came out here and used last year as more of an experience to come out here and play a lot harder.”
Fortunately for the Cowboys, Gilbert seems to rise to the occasion against the best. He battled NFL top-10 pick Justin Blackmon in practice during his first two years in Stillwater and won his share of those one-on-one battles. As a sophomore, he had picks against future NFL starting quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck.
If the Cowboys hope to knock off the Tigers, Gilbert will have to play a major role in slowing DGB and the Missouri passing game.
“Justin has gotten the national accolades and well-deserved,” Spencer said. “He’s in a [high] profile position, is going to get tested many times during the bowl game.”