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Sometime between the end of the regular season and before their team was shunned by every bowl game, University of Toledo defensive linemen ran sprints to stay sharp. Coach Matt Campbell stepped out of his office to take a look and couldn’t believe who was leading the pack — an unsung player wearing No. 34.
Halfway through last season No. 34 was demoted to scout team. No. 34 has gone four seasons since high school without making a tackle. No. 34 seemed to be a candidate to transfer. There’s a story of perseverance with No. 34.
PHOTO GALLERY: UT football practice
Keenen Gibbs went searching for new digits two years ago, deeming his No. 99 jersey to be bad luck after he tore his ACL in the 2012 spring game.
“I was like, I’m gonna change it up,” Gibbs said.
Every spring seems to unearth a breakout talent, and this year’s example is the hard-luck junior from Cincinnati. Finally healthy, Gibbs is turning the corner on a career once undermined by academic shortcomings and injuries. This week his coaches elevated him to first team at defensive end, a rise of two spots from the pre-spring depth chart where Gibbs was listed at tackle.
“The kid’s a fighter,” Campbell said.
Campbell said Gibbs has had “maybe as good of a spring as any player in our program.” Toledo will practice once more, on Thursday, before putting the spring to rest with Saturday’s blue and gold game.
Gibbs admitted to being “excited but also kind of nervous” for Saturday, roughly the two-year anniversary of his tearing the ACL in his right knee on a non-contact play.
“For him, he’s just having a ball because he’s been on the sideline all this time,” defensive line coach Eli Rasheed said.
After seeing Gibbs outrun all other linemen last fall, Campbell pulled him aside “for a long talk.”
“I said, ‘Don’t give up. Finish great academically. Finish in great position and let’s see what happens come the fall,’” Campbell recalled.
The coach didn’t have to wait that long. Gibbs attacked winter conditioning with urgency, posting scores that ranked among the best on the team while packing on 20 pounds. Gibbs cut fast food from his diet — no more late-night pizza runs — so it stands to reason that extra pounds don’t equate to mush on his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame. He’s now ready to show why one Ohio recruiting analyst pegged him a top-10 defensive lineman in 2010.
“I feel much better,” Gibbs said. “I feel healthier than I have been in the past. More explosive. I get off the ball faster. I can drive with my knee. That’s one thing I couldn’t do last year. My knee feels really strong.”
Gibbs, who prepped at Cincinnati LaSalle, sat out his first year at Toledo as an academic grayshirt, meaning he could take classes but was barred from team activities. He redshirted the following season in 2011. He lost all of 2012 recovering from the knee injury. For those counting, that makes three years since he last ran down a running back or broke up a pass. He made his college debut at Florida last year, played in two more games, and was relegated to the scout team for the final six games.
“I was appreciative of it,” Campbell said. “He never was a kid that whined.”
Asked about his ascent up the depth chart, Gibbs said, “I don’t ponder on myself.”
He did admit this much: “No. 34 is treating me much better.”
KIDS CLINIC: Children in grades kindergarten through eighth are invited to a free youth football clinic prior to Saturday’s game. Instruction, given by Toledo players, will begin at 11 a.m.