One of the criticisms of Ulysees Gilbert III when he declared for the draft out of Akron was that he was on the small side as an inside linebacker—even if that isn’t entirely the case, being roughly the same size as Devin Bush, whom the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted in the first round, before taking the former all the way in the sixth.
The team doesn’t see that as an issue. Earlier today, inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky was asked for an update on the second-year player, and in particular whether or not he felt comfortable with Gilbert’s ability to play at either position on the inside.
“Yes, he is” able to play either, he told reporters earlier today before practice. “He’s done a very good job at learning both spots. He’s done that out there on the field with the calls and things like that. Now, he has a long way to go, just in general because of last year, but I like his trajectory”.
Initially making the team as the fifth inside linebacker in 2019, Gilbert found a ready position on the special teams units, logging some 150 snaps in just the seven games in which he played. As Olsavsky alluded to, however, his rookie year was shortened because of a back injury that left him on injured reserve for half of the season.
A year on, with Mark Barron released and Tyler Matakevich having departed in free agency, he is now suddenly the next man up. As a matter of fact, there is only one man behind him, currently, in Robert Spillane, a fellow second-year player who was on the practice squad in 2019 before replacing Gilbert on the active roster when the latter was placed on injured reserve.
With just four inside linebackers in total on the 80-man roster, the Steelers are really putting a lot of faith in these two young players, particularly Gilbert, which is exciting in a way, but also concerning, considering that both are inexperienced and have no regular season defensive playing time under their belts.
There is an exceptionally high chance that there will be a point in time in which he is asked to line up on defense at some point this season. It is even possible that the Steelers have a package in mind in which they work to get him on the field, likely in passing situations over Vince Williams, or in a three-linebacker set that they very briefly used in 2018 with Matthew Thomas.
A key part of his ability to be the primary reserve is both understanding and physically being able to play either the mack or the buck positions. According to Olsavsky, he is showing that he is equipped to handle that responsibility—and perhaps the signal-calling responsibility as well, should it come to that.