J.J. Gibson has been a fixture in the University at Buffalo secondary since his record-setting freshman season. But only now as a senior is he playing at a level that will make him one of the best safeties in school history.
Gibson having a great game and UB playing respectable defense are familiar themes this season for the Bulls (1-6, 1-4 Mid-American Conference), who visit Marshall (3-3, 3-0) Saturday afternoon (4:30 p.m., Empire, Radio 550 AM). While several Bulls are enjoying all-league seasons, Gibson is the leader.
The 5-foot-9, 184-pound free safety and Sweet Home product ranks sixth in the MAC this season with 9.6 tackles a game. He is second on the school's list in career solo tackles with 195. Gibson needs 42 solo tackles in the next four games to overtake Craig Guest as the school's all-time leader. Gibson's 311 career tackles are fourth best in school history behind Guest (452 tackles from 1993 to '96), Mike Laipple (402, 1983 to '86) and Pete Conley (376, 1992 to '95).
"He's on the cusp of being outstanding," said UB defensive coordinator Tom Jones. "He has elevated my opinion of him, and I was pretty high on him. It's his leadership, and his quiet leadership is turning into more pestiferous leadership."
Gibson has led or tied for team-high honors in tackles in four of the Bulls' seven games, and he has come up with several game-altering plays. In UB's 37-17 loss to Syracuse, Gibson returned a fumble 57 yards for a touchdown and gave the Bulls a 10-3 lead. His first interception of the season led to a touchdown in UB's 48-20 win over Central Florida. In losses the last two weeks against Akron and Miami (Ohio), Gibson recorded 22 tackles.
"My season so far has been solid," said Gibson, who grew up on the West Side before moving to Amherst to attend Sweet Home. "I don't feel it's been a great season, and I don't feel it's as good as I want it to be."
Some would beg to differ.
"He has stepped up his game more than I could have hoped for," Jones said. "He's starting to take charge out there, which is what this program needs."
Gibson set the school record for tackles by a freshman with 108, so the ability was always there. The confidence and leadership were not.
"He played hard, and on the field his actions would tell you, 'Hey, I'm leading by example,' " Jones said. "This year, he's leading by example and making more plays -- bigger plays it seems than he has -- and he's also become a leader vocally."
Had he been a little more vocal, perhaps Gibson would have been a tailback. Gibson intended to play the position at UB, the only Division I-A school to offer him a scholarship, but then-coach Craig Cirbus and his staff had other plans.
"They had me as running back/DB, but I was looking forward to playing running back," Gibson said. "As soon as I went on my visit, they put me in the DB room and I was like, 'You're going to show me this and show me the running back room, too?' Since UB was the only offer I had, I had to go with it. I just wanted to play football, I didn't stress over it."
Turns out Gibson was in the right room all along. The proof is in the record book.