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2023 NFL Draft: Jahmyr Gibbs' quiet nature belies emphatic on-field presence

Tashard Choice knows what Jahmyr Gibbs' Achilles' heel is -- and Choice isn't afraid to reveal it, mere days prior to the 2023 NFL Draft.

In 2021, Gibbs was coming off a brilliant freshman season at Georgia Tech, which he began by returning a kickoff 75 yards on his first college touch and wrapped up with 763 yards from scrimmage and seven TDs. Choice, the Yellow Jackets' running backs coach at the time, anointed Gibbs as a team leader and wanted him to address the rest of the squad.

"Everybody wanted to hear him talk," Choice said. "He was like, 'I don't want to talk.'

"This is really who Jah is. I've never seen him worried about anything until we were gonna make him talk in front of the team. Guess what he didn't want to do?"

Choice let him off the hook.

"All I know is, I didn't give the speech," Gibbs said, nervously chuckling.

Pro: Exceptional at football.

Con: Dislikes public speaking.

"He just naturally loves football," said Gibbs' adoptive father, Greg Ross. "He's just ... a little more reserved and a little quieter."

Added Gibbs: "If I don't know you, I'm probably not going to say too much around you. It's probably just that I've got nothing to say. But with my friends -- you can ask them -- I'm different around them."

Based on the picture painted by conversations with both Gibbs and Choice, they became tight during Gibbs' recruitment, the relationship growing to one of trust and love. Choice, the former NFL pro with his exuberant personality, was fire. The steely, quiet Gibbs was more ice. Somehow, the pairing worked.

In 2021, Gibbs carried Georgia Tech, gaining nearly 30 percent of the Yellow Jackets' yards from scrimmage and ranking second in the ACC in kick return yards. Gibbs owned the team's longest run, reception and return in 2021.

But losing at Tech -- the team dropped 16 out of 22 games in 2020-21 -- ate at him. After the season, he walked into Choice's office and delivered the news: Gibbs wanted to transfer.

Choice laughed. Though Gibbs didn't know it at the time, Choice was pondering his own future elsewhere. Choice also realized that, with Gibbs presumably moving to a school with a brighter spotlight, the prophesy Choice delivered to Gibbs' adoptive parents long before Gibbs' recruitment blew up was coming true: They had a future first-round NFL talent living under their roof.

Hearing that message from Choice during the recruiting process was a shock to Greg and Dusty Ross, with whom Gibbs lived for several years. Gibbs had Choice on speakerphone, and Dusty just happened to be recording.

"You're thinking, is this just somebody else blowing smoke up our butt like everybody else?" Dusty admitted. "But we were big football fans and knew how good (Gibbs) was. Here was a coach who played at the highest level telling us what we'd been seeing. I'll remember that call as long as I live."

Just to make sure, Choice got a second opinion -- from the NFL. Choice called his former mentor Will McClay, vice president of player personnel with the Dallas Cowboys, where Choice interned after his playing career there. McClay watched Gibbs' high school junior tape and told Choice: "This kid's got it."

With the NFL in mind, Gibbs transferred to Alabama. The transition -- and the leap in exposure -- could have been a challenge to deal with, but Choice was sure his mentee would be fine. Gibbs was similarly certain.

"I wasn't worried about anything because I knew what I could do," Gibbs said. "It wasn't culture shock or anything."

Alabama didn't have its typical national-championship-caliber season in 2022, finishing 11-2. But Gibbs led the Tide in all-purpose yards with 1,624, averaging 6.1 yards per carry and 10.1 yards per catch. When the draft is held this week, he is expected to be a top-50 selection, perhaps even a first-rounder.

Choice admits he misunderstood Gibbs' quietude at first but grew to understand how the young man ticks.

"I didn't know how highly smart he was," Choice said. "One of the smartest running backs I've ever coached. He doesn't say much, but he sees it. You tell him something, he's got it. You don't have to walk him through it.

"Some people play the piano by looking at the notes. Some play music by ear. He's definitely a runner by ear, you feel me?"

Choice thinks the team that drafts Gibbs won't even know what it truly has right away.

"He has so much confidence and inner swagger," Choice said. "Because he doesn't talk much, he keeps it to himself. He is a quiet, mean competitor."

As part of her job as Alabama's Director of Behavioral Medicine, Dr. Ginger Gilmore oversees the mental health assistance offered to the athletic department -- not just the football team, although she's become a crucial resource for coach Nick Saban. Gilmore holds a doctorate in behavioral health and also is a certified athletic trainer, marrying the mental and physical to assess athletes' needs, fears and concerns from a unique vantage point.

"Having the athletic training (background) allows me to understand the language of the sport, the language of the athlete, the language of the coach," Gilmore said.

She's also keen to nonverbal cues, the reading of which becomes a critical skill when working with a more introverted athlete such as Gibbs. Yet Gibbs was "extremely self-sufficient," she said, while he was adapting to the cauldron of Bama football. Gilmore and Gibbs didn't become especially close during his one year there -- but that was partly because he had an ability to compartmentalize and fold in with new teammates so seamlessly that it floored Gilmore and her staff. Gibbs didn't really seem to need their help.

"He's a special guy," Gilmore said. "I noted to his (adoptive parents), here we thought this would be a difficult transition. But Jahmyr, even with his quiet personality, handled it in such a great way. It was impressive."

Gilmore stood on the sideline at the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Eve, watching the Crimson Tide struggle early and taking mental notes on how players responded to adversity after falling behind 10-0 to Kansas State.

"The doubt crept in," Gilmore said. Everywhere she looked, she saw bad body language and hung heads. From all except for one player.

"The one person who stood out was Jahmyr," she said. "He was laser-focused. His energy was consistent. He was going into battle, right?"

Gibbs gave the Tide the spark they needed. He returned a kickoff 30 yards, then, three plays later, ripped off 60 more on a third-and-10 catch, setting up Bama's first TD. He'd total 173 all-purpose yards, flipping the game and leading the Crimson Tide in a 45-20 laugher.

Gilmore didn't know it at the time, but that would be Gibbs' final game at Alabama. He declared for the draft days later.

Watching Gibbs be so dialed in left an impression that's now burned deeply into her mind.

"The incredible focus he showed in that moment took me aback," Gilmore said. "I haven't seen that in a really long time. ... Gosh, it was just so remarkable. It's a moment that I'll remember in my career, regardless of the sport, for a long, long time."

Talking with scouts from three NFL teams, I heard praise for Gibbs' production at two different schools. For his explosive burst. His dangerous receiving ability. His humble, hungry demeanor. His big-game experience at Bama, playing in the spotlight amid massive expectations.

However, given the speed-dating-esque nature of pre-draft interviews, especially for underclassmen, who might not quite have been as thoroughly reconnoitered by area scouts previously as older prospects, one might wonder if teams have had a chance to truly get to know Gibbs as a person. He carries no known character concerns. But is there such a thing as too quiet for an NFL locker room?

For Gilmore, it's a laughable no.

"I would say in response to that: Let him be quiet," Gilmore said. "He's certainly loud enough with his actions on the field. Let him be quiet. Is the on-the-field part not loud enough for you?"

Those who have worked with Gibbs will defend this aspect of his personality almost unfailingly. Saban, a natural introvert himself, has been known to share how special he thinks Gibbs is. He also shared a story with the Rosses -- one he recently retold publicly -- about when he failed music class because he didn't want to sing in front of classmates. At team dinners last year, Gibbs was often seated right next to Saban.

Now the running backs coach at Texas, Choice is another staunch ally of Gibbs -- as he will be almost certainly for life, regardless of where their paths take them and irrespective of their personality differences. When Gibbs is drafted this week, his new team will call. The next call is likely to be from Choice.

"I told Jah, 'When you get drafted, I'm gonna be with (Texas RB Bijan Robinson), but I am gonna call you and congratulate you. But I'm gonna let you know, I'll be crying when I do,' " Choice said.

Gibbs didn't know how to respond. He just laughed.

"That was all I needed," Choice said. "That's how well I know him."

Follow Eric Edholm on Twitter.

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