Coming into his senior season, Athens High's Jaylen Gilbert wasn't sure just how many carries he would get at running back. While he had played some at the position in previous years, he mostly played in the defensive backfield.
But when he got his chance to be the Golden Eagles' featured running back, he never let go, and finished with one of the finest seasons a running back has had at Athens in many years.
Gilbert rushed for 1,317 yards and 15 touchdowns for Athens, helping lead them to a Class 6A, Region 8 championship and its third consecutive playoff appearance.
Gilbert's season included three consecutive games with more than 200 yards rushing. He rushed for 242 yards against Muscle Shoals, 291 against Hueytown and 224 against Hartselle.
“Jaylen has got tremendous vision, and he's as fast as he's going to be on his first step,” Athens coach Cody Gross said when describing what makes Gilbert a good running back. “He doesn't have to slow down when he makes a cut, and he runs with good body lean. He's so natural in all that he does.”
In addition to being fast, Gilbert is extremely durable. In the past few years, Athens has used multiple running backs splitting carries. This season, Gilbert got the bulk of the carries. His most impressive performance may have been against Hartselle, when he carried the ball 50 times in a 19-7 Golden Eagles victory.
“The 50 carries against Hartselle is what stands out,” Gross said. “He told us he felt like he could have carried it 20 more times. That toughness and strength is what stands out.”
Gilbert said he didn't even realize how many carries he had against Hartselle until the next day when the coaches told him.
“That's definitely the most carries I've ever had in a game,” Gilbert said. “During the game, I told the coaches I could keep carrying it. Whatever I had to do to help the team win, that's what I was going to do.”
Gross said that team attitude is one reason Gilbert has been such a great player at Athens, whether it was at defensive back or running back.
“His teammates voted him one of our team captains, and that's the greatest honor you can receive,” Gross said. “That tells you what his teammates thought of him.”
Gilbert said he couldn't have had such a great senior season without his teammates.
“I just want to thank God for putting me in this position, and give credit to my offensive linemen for creating gaps for me to run through and my wideouts blocking on the perimeter,” Gilbert said. “I couldn't have done it without them.”
Gross said he always had complete trust in Gilbert to execute the play whenever it was called for him.
“One of the reasons he got so many carries is he didn't put the ball on the ground once (with a fumble),” he said. “Think about all the touches he had and he never let the ball hit the ground. That's pretty big.”
Gilbert said he will never forget his time playing football at Athens.
“I remember in elementary school going to (Athens High) games and playing under the scoreboard, wondering what it would be like to be on the field,” Gilbert said. “It really meant a lot to me. Sharing a locker room with my teammates, we created bonds nobody could break and that's all you can ask for. It's much bigger than just football.”