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Callaway’s Gilbert stands tall

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

It’s the last thing Callaway defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard wanted to see.

Callaway is already short-handed at linebacker with senior Austin Thomas unable to go because of an injury, so when LaQuize Gilbert went down in the second quarter of last week’s state-playoff game against Lovett, it was a potentially brutal blow to a defense tasked with stopping a capable high-powered offense.

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, Gilbert got his injured ankle wrapped up, and after missing a few plays he was able to return to the field and make a massive impact in the second-round game.

Gilbert, a senior linebacker, led Callaway with 16 tackles, including one for loss, in a hard-earned 16-9 victory over Lovett at Callaway Stadium.

“You know he’s not going to lay down unless he’s really hurt. Losing him would have been catastrophic,” Hubbard said of Gilbert, who also contributes on offense as a running back. “He said, I don’t know if I can cut on it, but I’m good enough to play defense. So I don’t think he ran the ball after that, but we played him on defense, and he ended up making some huge plays down the stretch.”

Gilbert has been making plays all season, and he has come up huge of late.

After a 12-tackle performance in a critical road win over Temple, Gilbert had 13 tackles in a victory over Heard County that wrapped up the region championship.

Callaway won its first-round playoff game against Banks County by forfeit, and Gilbert was in the spotlight once again against Lovett with 16 tackles.

Gilbert’s performances in the past two games have been especially important since Thomas has been sideline with an injury.

“When Austin went out, he just knew he had to pick up some slack there, and he’s done it,” Hubbard said. “He’s really been unbelievable the last three weeks.”

For Gilbert, it’s all about being there for his teammates, who have come to mean so much to him over the years.

“These guys are not just my teammates, they’re my family,” Gilbert said. “We’ve got a great bond. We know if one of us is down, another one will pick us up. I know that we can do anything if we put our minds to it.”

Gilbert will be ready to go on Friday when Callaway host Thomasville in the third round of the Class AA state playoffs.

“He’s still sore this week, and he’s limited a little bit, but he’s tough,” Hubbard said.

Gilbert, who is the number two running back behind Charlie Dixon, likely won’t carry the ball this week.

Kier Jackson, who is also a linebacker, will see an increased workload at running back.

“Kier went in there and did a good job picking up his carries,” Hubbard said.

Jackson and Dixon have both been playing a lot at linebacker with Thomas unavailable to go, and they both performed well.

Jackson, in fact, was second to Gilbert with 10 tackles, and he also had four carries for 12 yards.

“Those two guys have taken over Austin’s role,” Hubbard said. “Kier has done a really good job. I’ve been proud of him. Last week he was making every one of (the calls), all the checks. He’s come into that role really well. He’ll do it again this week, and he’ll be ready to roll.”

Gilbert was hardly the only defensive standout in the Lovett game.

Senior defensive back Jalin Shephard had two late-game interceptions that helped preserve the win.

The first of those two interceptions set up Dixon’s go-ahead 7-yard touchdown run with less than two minutes to play.

Shephard had another interception on Lovett’s final possession that clinched the victory.

Earlier in the half, Shephard nearly came up with an interception that could have resulted in a touchdown, but he dropped the ball.

“He did that, and I kind of know he’ll do something to make up for that, and he went on and had two picks,” Hubbard said. “It was just a great job by him reading the quarterback. Both situations it wasn’t the guy he was covering. He was able to catch two overthrows. They were huge plays for us.”

Shephard also delivered one of the plays of the game on special teams. After Lovett scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Shephard blocked the ensuing extra-point attempt to keep the game tied at 9-9.

“I thought the play of the game, me personally, was the blocked extra point by Shep,” Hubbard said. “That was an all-out effort play, refusing to lose. I think when he blocked that, I felt a sigh of relief, and I think our kids did, too. It’s just a lot of really good hustle plays, and guys not accepting the fact that it was going to be their last game of the year. You play like that, then you’ve got a good chance to win.”

Another defensive back for Callaway, Cameron Smith, also had two interceptions against Lovett, and they both came in the first half.

Smith’s first interception came in the end zone after Lovett made it to the Callaway 5-yard line on the game’s opening possession.

“We got pressure on the edge,” Hubbard said. “We went to man coverage, and he was the slot guy. He did a great job, kind of coaxing him into throwing it, and he picked him off. I really thought it was Cam’s best game of the year. I thought he showed some toughness. We’ve been on him about his eyes and not reading the right things, and I thought he was really disciplined with his eyes. He was in the right spot pretty much all night.”

Another key to Callaway’s defensive effort was the performance of the defensive linemen.

Caleb Woody, Sam Williams, Lathan Patterson and Caden Prather were the starters on the defensive line, but position coach Jamal Bruce used a bunch of players at that position.

“Give a lot of that credit to coach Bruce,” Hubbard said. “I think he played 11 defensive linemen the other night. That’s a lot of guys. That keeps them fresh. That’s a lot of guys to coach up and make sure they know where to go. He does a good job of that. I think that’s helped us when we’ve had some issues with injuries and quarantine. Those other guys have played so much that they’re able to step in there and play and do the job.”

LaDarrius Williams and Jarvis Parks joined Gilbert and Jackson at linebacker, and Osiris Rivas teamed with Smith and Shephard to do a stellar job at defensive back.

“The biggest thing is when you pop on the tape, you see that we played extremely hard,” Hubbard said. “When you start seeing things like guys selling their body out on the 1-yard line to keep guys out, that’s effort.”