Catawba football: Things snapping into place for Gibson
By Mike London
It all started to come together for Catawba center Zane Gibson in last season’s televised game against Mars Hill.
It was still scoreless late in the first quarter when a yellow flag dropped for offsides on the defense. A Lion had jumped into the neutral zone, the space between the offensive and defensive lines of scrimmage.
Gibson had the presence of mind to snap the ball, and Catawba had a free play. If something negative happened, the Indians simply would accept a 5-yard penalty. If something good happened, the Indians would take the result of the play.
Something very good happened. Brad Roach threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Lee Page to get a 41-25 victory rolling. No one noticed Gibson, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound redhead who is sort of hard not to notice, but he was as instrumental in making those six points happen as Roach and Page.
In the monumental win at Carson-Newman two weeks later, Gibson’s awareness of defenders jumping early earned the Indians three free shots downfield, and Roach hit Brent Johnson for sizeable gains each time.
“Zane started out as a tackle and then he was a guard, and non-centers have the mentality to sit still on those plays,” Catawba offensive line coach Ben Hepler said. “But as the center, he’s the guy who has got to pull the trigger.”
Before that Mars Hill moment, Gibson hadn’t always pulled it and Catawba hadn’t always gotten those free plays.
“I guess I’d been making half-snaps, but after we finally got that free play for a touchdown against Mars Hill, I felt like it was all starting to click,” Gibson said. “Then we started rolling.”
In high school, Gibson rolled often. He played at huge Wakefield High, north of Raleigh, for coach Steve Rivers, Philip’s father.
Gibson played right tackle, clearing holes for All-State back Matt Baugh, who scored 38 TDs in 2005. The Wolverines were 14-1 during Gibson’s senior year, losing to New Bern in the 4AA state semifinals. That outcome may have been different if Baugh hadn’t been injured against Cary in the quarterfinals.
Gibson had barely heard of Catawba, but Steve Rivers knew Catawba assistant coach and N.C. State graduate Matt Barrett well, and that opened the door.
“What I remember when I first saw Zane was how hard he warmed up, how hard he practiced and then how hard he played,” Barrett said. “You could see he had a chance to be a special guy.”
Gibson redshirted in 2006.
He entered spring drills in 2007 as the second-string left guard.
“I also was taking a few snaps, but I really thought that was just because we had some injuries,” Gibson said.
There was more to it.
“Zane was making good strides at guard, but we were really struggling with snaps,” Hepler said. “We started thinking Zane might be the one that could do it.”
The redshirt freshman was the starting center opening day at Chowan. He earned the school’s offensive player of the week honor in Game 3 against Livingstone and turned the corner for good that night against Mars Hill.
“I had a lot to learn, and it definitely wasn’t all clicking for me right from the start,” Gibson said. “But it helped to have experienced guys next to me and to have a quarterback who knew the system so well.”
Now Catawba has an established player who will be a key part of the O-line through the 2010 season. Gibson, who has been joined by former Wakefield center and Cap 7 Lineman of the Year Daylon McAlexander at Catawba, should keep getting better.
“We asked Zane to do an awful lot as a freshman center, and he came through for us,” Catawba head coach Chip Hester said. “The great thing about him is he’s not satisfied with just being the starting center at Catawba.
“You get worse or you get better every day, and he’s getting better. He has that drive to improve.”
Gibson’s mental grasp of the offense is also improving on a weekly basis.
“I can see a big difference from last year to this,” Hepler said. “He’s smart, asks a lot of questions. We give the linemen a test before each game, and he’s always the last to finish. He wants to make sure he’s got everything down.”
Catawba opened with a disappointing upset loss to St. Aug’s. The ground game wasn’t effective, but the O-line has come around and holes are getting bigger.
The Indians rushed for 248, 179 and 183 yards in three recent wins that elevated Hester to 50 head-coaching victories and the team to 20th in the AFCA poll.
“Jamelle Cuthbertson is an exciting back and so quick,” Gibson said. “We’ve been getting him to the corner some, and it definitely put a smile on my face to see him getting 6 or 7 yards every time at Mars Hill.”
Hepler saw things to like in the 24-7 victory at Mars Hill, but he also saw room to get better.
“The grades for the O-line weren’t good,” he said. “But we were successful because we played so hard and were so physical. If we can maintain that effort and improve our technique, then we’ve got something.”