The defense was going to test Justin Gilbert, even if it was spring practice.
The Maryland redshirt sophomore played sparingly until the final month of last season. Still, he was the most obvious choice to replace Bruce Campbell at left tackle. Better to find out quickly how he'd handle the crucial responsibility of having quarterback Jamarr Robinson's back.
Turns out things are off to a promising start.
Gilbert emerged as one of the most improved players last spring for Maryland, which begins preseason camp in less than five weeks. And in the penultimate session of spring ball, it was clear to him he wasn't just zeroing in on blocking an end and hoping for the best.
Instead, he picked up a blitz he might see once every two weeks and moved onto the next play.
"That was the first thing I saw," Gilbert said. "I was able to call it and we picked it up perfect. That's something that's helped me out a lot. I know where I'm going on every play, so I can focus more on just coming up and hitting the guy rather than where I'm supposed to go and what steps I'm supposed to take."
Gilbert was afforded a luxury more than a few recent tackles at Maryland (Campbell, Jared Gaither, Stephon Heyer and even Dane Randolph to an extent) did not enjoy --- getting much of two seasons to adapt to the college game.
Not that it wasn't close. Campbell's injuries last season created a precarious situation. Although Paul Pinegar slid from right tackle to left tackle, the Terps were still an injury away from force-feeding Gilbert snaps.
It was only a few months earlier that Maryland settled on left tackle as Gilbert's long-term position. But after a decent enough spring, he struggled while backing up Campbell last August.
"I didn't really have a good camp last summer," Gilbert said. "That's what really hurt me going into the season. They still didn't really trust me to go out there and do it. When Bruce went down, I was over [on the sideline] and I was a little nervous. There's 80,000 people at Cal and that's the first time I have to play. But then Paul went in and played most of the snaps. Then halfway through the season it just kind of clicked more. I finally understood what was going on."
It showed in Maryland's JV game in late October. Beforehand, coaches told Gilbert his chances of playing meaningful snaps the rest of the season would hinge on his performance against Fork Union.
Sure enough, everything started to make sense. His steps came more naturally, and blocking was a more automatic process than before. Later that week, offensive line coach Tom Brattan said the Terps would try to slip Gilbert in more frequently starting with a trip to N.C. State.
The rotation was three series for Campbell, then one for Gilbert. And when Campbell bolted for the NFL after the season, the Terps had a decent idea what they'd have in his replacement.
"He's more physical than he used to be," coach Ralph Friedgen said. "He's pretty athletic. Everybody thinks Bruce was a very good athlete, and he was, but he was a little bit stiff. Gilbert's not stiff. He's a very good run blocker and I see him improving that. He's a long way from where he's going to be, but I feel pretty good about him. I think he's going to be a really good football player."
The late-season work might have allowed Gilbert's career snap total to creep into three digits. That might not be much, but it was crucial for a player now penciled in as the likely left tackle in 2010.
At the least, Gilbert believes he improved dramatically in the spring, and the time spent playing with likely left guard Andrew Gonnella no doubt helped. But having just a bit of meaningful time to fall back on could be crucial once the Sept. 6 opener against Navy arrives.
"For me, getting ready to go in to being a starter, that helped a lot," Gilbert said. "I was going up against Willie Young, I didn't dominate him like Bruce was doing, but going up against a guy like that of that caliber, going up against [Virginia] Tech and those guys. ... I didn't play a lot, but it gave me enough that I'm not really worried about this season. I'm ready to go and I'm ready to play and I want to show myself. I want this team to do good. I know we're not talking about it, but I don't want another season like last year. I want to be good."