These days, all Ulysees Gilbert III is focused on is earning a roster spot. Entering his third year in the NFL, Gilbert has appeared in only 11 games and produced 10 tackles for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as a series of back injuries have sent him to injured reserve each of his first two seasons since the franchise drafted him in the sixth round out of Akron.
But Thursday’s Hall of Fame game comes with a bonus for Gilbert: A return to his collegiate home. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton is just a 22-minute drive down Interstate 77 from the University of Akron, putting Gilbert back in the same area where he spent four years and 50 games starring for the Zips.
“It’s kind of sentimental. The Hall of Fame was one of the first places I went before I committed to Akron. That’s one of the places they take us, all the commits, first. So going back there, it’s just kind of reminiscent to me,” Gilbert said. “I’m excited to go back to Ohio and maybe have some of the people from Akron come. And also my parents coming up to just watch me. So I’m excited.”
Gilbert played in all 50 games Akron was in during his four-year career, putting together two seasons of at least 120 tackles. He had 353 career stops with the Zips, 28.5 tackles for loss (at least 7.5 his final three seasons) and nine sacks. His performance made him the first Akron player drafted into the league since Jatavis Brown in 2016, and only the second drafted since 2008.
He is fighting an uphill battle against his injuries to earn a spot on the team’s roster in 2021. Pittsburgh is set in its starters with Devin Bush and Robert Spillane, and drafted Buddy Johnson in the fourth round this year. Competing for spots at inside linebacker behind those three are Gilbert, Marcus Allen, Calvin Bundage, Jamir Jones, Tegray Scales, and Miles Killebrew, with at most two spots open.
A big preseason, beginning Thursday just 22 minutes from his collegiate home, is Gilbert’s ticket to continuing his Steeler career. He and the rest of the defense have spent the week preparing for their first opportunity to get back on the field.
“It was kind of like two camp days. Today felt more game-like than Monday, but at the end of the day, every day you should prepare like it’s a game. So we just came out here and just had a great day as a defense, and I’m excited for Thursday,” Gilbert said.