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'V' is for virile

Vernon Gholston has developed from football neophyte to powerful force on the field — and a likely top-10 pick

By Eric Edholm
March 20, 2008

The following article is featured content from the 2008 Draft Guide, PFW's annual magazine that features scouting reports on more than 350 players, draft analyses for all 32 teams and rankings of the prospects by position. The magazine is on sale at newsstands and bookstores throughout the country, and it can be purchased at PFWstore.com.

Vernon Gholston

Years from now they might tell the story, a la Michael Jordan, as inspiration of the hard-to-believe variety.
Ohio State’s Vernon Gholston, soon to be a top-10 draft pick, was kicked off his high school football team. For not being tough enough.

Keep that in mind when you look at his impossibly sculpted and sinewy frame, now almost fully developed at 6-foot-4 and 264 pounds of mostly rock. That comes from his countless hours spent in the weight room, dating back to his freshman year at Detroit’s Cass Tech High School when head football coach Thomas Wilcher spotted the quiet Gholston — then 14 years old — wandering the halls. He was 6-foot-2, already weighing more than 200 pounds.

“I thought he was a parent,” Wilcher said. “He had his books in one hand and his Bible in the other. I asked him if he was looking for his son or his little brother.”

“And he was here for academics, not football,” Cass defensive coordinator Charleston Fobbs said. “We’re a test-taking school. You have to apply to get in here.”

Gholston eventually convinced Wilcher he was indeed in the ninth grade, but not before Wilcher received confirmation from Gholston’s teacher. After that, it didn’t take long for Wilcher to convince him he should be playing football. Gholston had never played organized sports but had started weightlifting a little in his basement. He was looking for a passion in his life, something he hadn’t had since his father had died when Gholston was in the eighth grade.

“One of the biggest things that I took from him before he passed away was he told me, whatever I do, just try to be the best at it. Even if it’s being a bum — be the best bum out there. That’s something I tried to bring to football,” Gholston said.

Gholston’s early days as a player were rough-cut. Wilcher started him out at offensive guard — “A guard who runs a 4.5 (40-yard dash) and is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds,” Wilcher said with a hearty laugh. “He was just strong, that’s it. I knew he could block somebody and go straight ahead. That’s all we asked him to do.”

“He didn’t know what an A-gap was when he showed up,” Fobbs added.

But Wilcher knew that kind of talent had to be on defense, so he put him in at rush end, believing it was where Gholston’s raw athleticism would fit best. Fobbs was not impressed.

“(Fobbs) told me, ‘He’s not tough enough,’ ” Wilcher said, “and kicked Vernon off the team. Sent him home. He swore at him a little bit, told him to get off the field and (not to) come back. Vernon left with his head hung low.

“Vernon told me, ‘All I want to do is play football. I didn’t come out here to try to kill anyone.’ He said, ‘I just want to make the tackle. Isn’t the tackle good enough?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you have to have some type of intensity to it. That’s all he was talking about.’ ”

Fobbs explains it a little differently.

“Some kids, when they are new to football,” he said, “you stick them in against juniors and seniors, they struggle and get frustrated. I thought he needed a year of JV. I wasn’t trying to discourage him. We put (LSU freshman OT) Joseph Barksdale on JV for a year, and he was the biggest monster we ever had.”

Gholston returned, and Wilcher kept him at guard — and away from Fobbs — for most of the next two seasons. But every now and then during Gholston’s junior season the head coach would sneak him in on defense late in games with the game locked up.

“He was crushing people,” Wilcher said.

Fobbs still wasn’t sold, saying Gholston was doing his damage against second- and third-stringers. But both coaches agreed Gholston would play defense as a senior, and they lined him up in a robber position. “We just played Vernon behind the line and told him, ‘Go make a tackle,’ ” Wilcher said.

Before Gholston’s senior season, colleges became aware of his athletic prowess. And it was at the Michigan Nike camp that he became a star. He showed up at 6-3 and 248 pounds, and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds. “Everybody saw Vernon run,” Wilcher said. “They saw how big and strong he was. Everyone was oohing and ahhing over him.”

Everyone except Michigan.

“I was surprised they didn’t offer me (a scholarship) until everyone else did,” Gholston said. “I had been at their camp every summer.”

Ohio State was the first team to show the love, making it clear how much it wanted him before other teams jumped in with scholarship offers. Gholston was flattered, but he was a Detroit kid, and his mother, Cheryl, liked Michigan a lot. Wilcher brought Gholston and CB Allen Langford, another Division I prospect at Cass Tech, and presented them to head coach Lloyd Carr and the Michigan coaching staff.

“I said, ‘These two kids right here are Michigan players and they would love to go to your school,” Wilcher said.

Michigan’s response?

“They told me, ‘OK, we’ll look at him,’ ” Wilcher said.

The offer didn’t come until almost every other school recruiting him had offered him already. Gholston took stock of his recruiting status and signed on to become a Buckeye.

“(Langford) started his freshman year at Wisconsin; Vernon went to Ohio State and is going to be a first-round pick,” Wilcher said. “And the rest is history …

“Vernon is very loyal. He was hurt by it. He remembered that experience. Once Michigan offered him, he said, ‘Yeah, I want to go to Michigan. But Ohio State believed in me.’ ”

Meanwhile, Gholston was still developing as a player as a senior, and there was one defining moment in his high school career that both Wilcher and Fobbs believe helped make Gholston the player he is today. Cass was playing Mumford High, which featured one of the fastest running backs in the area, Marcus Thigpen, who now plays at Indiana. He was Mumford’s best player, and the coaches told Gholston to “make sure he doesn’t get the edge,” Fobbs said.

But on one sweep, Thigpen hit the corner and got past Gholston for a long touchdown run. “After Thigpen outran him to the boundary, Vernon came over to the sideline and said, ‘This will never happen to me again.’ That kid did nothing the rest of the game.”

Gholston went to Ohio State as a linebacker at first, but the coaches switched him to end, where the Buckeyes were thin, after fall camp his freshman year. He spent most of the year learning and adding muscle, getting only a handful of snaps. As a sophomore, Gholston was forced to redshirt after breaking his left hand in the season opener. And though he had cracked the DL rotation, the coaches weren’t sure exactly what they had. He was a rare specimen athletically, but he lacked the fire and passion that the coaches implored of him. One OSU defensive coach, like Fobbs before him, wondered if Gholston had the passion to be great.

The next spring, with Wilcher in town to watch practice, he and Gholston were watching film with Buckeyes DL coach and defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, who saw Gholston’s untapped greatness but believed he needed something extra. “He said, ‘Vernon, if you just had more fire, if you just go knock the (snot) out of someone …’ ” Wilcher remembers. “ ‘I need more fire out of you! I need more plays out of you!’ ”

’Nuff said. In the next practice, Gholston played with the intensity the Ohio State coaches were salivating for. He lined up against 6-foot-8 OLT Alex Boone, a possible first-round pick in 2009, and manhandled him.

“Vernon came back, got him with his pads and almost lifted him off the ground,” Wilcher said. “He took him and drove him all the way back. He just threw him. I said, ‘That’s what I am talking about!’ From there out, he was an animal.”

In his breakout sophomore season in 2006, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors as the Buckeyes went all the way to the national-title game. He played in the same “Leo” DE spot that previously had been manned by current Saints DE Will Smith and Mike Kudla. Gholston’s responsibilities were streamlined a bit, but he notched 7½ sacks and 15 tackles for loss and began to flash some of the raw ability the Cass coaches and Heacock knew he had.

“One minute I was rushing the passer, and the next I was dropping into coverage,” Gholston said. “It fit well with me from my offensive-line background, digging in the trenches and also dropping as a linebacker. I was comfortable doing both.”

As a junior, Gholston’s responsibilities increased. Three-quarters of the line that got the Buckeyes to the title game had graduated. He was now the marked man. And Gholston knew that he had to take more responsibility than just going for sacks.

“For me, (2007) was more about being a leader,” Gholston said. “I knew I was capable of being a solid player and doing what I was asked to do on the field. But we had a lot of young guys stepping in. I knew my job also entailed helping these guys adjust and step up.”

But his production improved, too. He set a school record for sacks, breaking Mike Vrabel’s 10-year-old mark, with 14 for minus-111 yards and allowed LBs James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman to combine for 230 tackles. As the season wore on, Gholston became more of a force, collecting four sacks against Wisconsin and three more against Michigan. Perhaps the signature moment of his season was when Gholston beat Michigan OLT Jake Long and sacked QB Chad Henne with what Gholston described as a “chest bump. I wanted to make sure I didn’t hit him late.”

“He’s that strong,” Henne said. “He can do that.”

As the Buckeyes were waiting to see if they’d play in another national-championship game, his teammates gathered to watch the Missouri and West Virginia games to find out if they were going to New Orleans. Gholston, though, missed the event. He had a physics test to study for.

“I take my academics seriously,” said Gholston, who plans to get his degree in consumer affairs despite coming out early.

Ohio State lost to LSU in the title game, and he entered the draft soon afterward. He trained at Athletes’ Performance Inc. in Arizona to prepare for the Combine, his pro day and the private workouts for NFL teams that were to follow.

“The biggest thing I have to improve on now is to learn how to cut loose,” Gholston said. “I tried so much to play within the scheme of the defense and do my individual job as opposed to, not necessarily freelancing, but just to go be a football player.”

Vrabel is a player to whom Gholston is often compared — a college end who can play up in a 3-4 or down in a 4-3 — and the Patriots’ versatile linebacker has gone back to Columbus several times to help Gholston work on technique.

“He’s a big kid, physical, fast,” Vrabel said. “He’s got all the tools. If anything, I think his technique would have to get a little bit better. When you’re that strong and that powerful, you can kind of get away with a lot. But at this level, he’ll have to work on that. And I’m sure he will.

“(He’s a) great kid and a hard worker.”

Several teams picking in the top 10 use 3-4 schemes, and although Gholston isn’t sure if he’ll wind up with one of them, he believes his versatility is what will serve him best in the NFL.

“I’ve played ‘three-technique,’ ‘five-technique,’ nose guard, middle linebacker,” Gholston said. “If you ask my coaches, they’ll tell you that I can play all those spots. I am happy wherever a team puts me.”

Wilcher saw it then, and he sees it now. Once he knew Gholston could turn it up a notch, there was no concern about this humble, intelligent, thoughtful kid turning into a fierce, unchained beast as a player.

“The thing you have to understand about Vernon is he’s a blue-collar worker,” Wilcher said. “He’s going to do exactly what you say and pick you up, brush you off and say, ‘Good job, man.’ That’s all Vernon is going to do.”

And that’s motivation enough to think Gholston is going to make it.

“In two or three years, he’s going to be unstoppable,” Wilcher said.