Army offensive lineman Justin Gilbert’s knee injury two years ago seemed to come at such a bad time.
The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder had started 12 games as a sophomore in 2013. That made him a key building block for new head coach Jeff Monken to launch his rebuilding program in 2014.
However, Gilbert missed Monken’s first season. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in practice that required reconstruction surgery.
Two years later, that frustrating season on the sidelines turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to return as a fifth-year senior in 2016, and the 4-2 Black Knights that are on pace for Army’s first bowl season since 2010.
“I wouldn’t want to be thinking the rest of my life, ‘What if I didn’t play this year?’” Gilbert said. “I can only play football so long, and I want to enjoy it. I’m glad I’m here.”
Who knows where Gilbert might end up because he was able to play this season. Army will likely still be an underdog when it plays Air Force on Nov. 5 and Navy on Dec. 10, but the Black Knights can claim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy if they win both of those games. That includes the bonus of a White House visit for the seniors.
Gilbert is now a third-year starter after he returned to the starting lineup in 2015. He’s playing left guard alongside what is bigger and more experienced offensive line than recent seasons.
For Saturday’s home game against North Texas (3-3), the other starters are junior center Bryce Holland (6-2, 289), junior right guard Mike Houghton (6-4, 257), senior left tackle Colby Enegren (6-2, 279) and senior right tackle Brett Toth (6-6, 259).
Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys said he noticed a big difference between Army’s O-line play in 2015 and 2016. Duke routed Army 44-3 at West Point in 2015, but it was a closer game two weeks ago: The Blue Devils won 13-6 in Durham, N.C.
“Their offensive line is bigger and more mature,” Humphreys said. “They’re playing together a lot better than a year ago.”
Gilbert has added to that overall size and maturity with an extra semester at West Point, but note that fifth-year senior eligibility at West Point isn’t as common as it is at civilian schools. Once cadets graduate, they’re expected to begin their five-year military commitments.
But at the same time, it’s tougher for a West Point cadet to keep up with his academic responsibilities with an injury that limits their mobility. The curriculum included military training while he rehabbed a reconstructed knee.
Gilbert was granted administrative leave for a semester to regain his physical conditioning before resuming his West Point academics. That changed his graduation date from last spring to December.
“Coming back to play football was different,” Gilbert said. “I wasn’t sure how strong my knee would be, but I haven’t had any problems.”
The only problem was last year’s 2-10 record, but Gilbert thinks that has helped the Black Knights, too.
“We didn’t feel good about last year,” he said. “There were games we could have won. That pushed us to work so much harder in the off-season. Playing in so many close games last year gave us confidence we can play better this year.”
He’s bigger, stronger and more confident than he was in 2014, and that’s been a bonus for himself and the Black Knights.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055