“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Alabama Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart uttered and then repeated that phrase to Peachtree Ridge (Georgia) High School head coach Mark Fleetwood upon seeing then-rising sophomore DeAngelo Gibbs in action for the first time at a Lions practice during the spring.
Smart heard the whispers about a young, dynamic athlete who had set the metro Atlanta recruiting circuit on fire since the end of the 2013 season. Still, what he saw left him lost for words.
“Golly, that No. 8, he looks like one of ours right now,” Fleetwood recalls hearing Smart expound on Gibbs. “Look how he comes off the ball.”
According to Fleetwood, that story is one of several versions of the same conversation that played out when college coaches descended on this campus just north of Atlanta last spring.
Such praise isn’t supposed to be heaped on players with little more than one year of experience playing high school football. Then again, Gibbs isn’t your typical 16-year-old football player.
Last year, the 6’2”, 200-pound athlete stunned onlookers in attendance at the Atlanta NFTC in March by winning the camp’s MVP award for the defensive backs segment over notable attendees such as 2015 5-star corner Kevin Toliver.
Considering that he wasn’t invited to the camp until the day before the event, and only after days of his family lobbying with the camp’s organizers, his performance spoke louder than words ever could.
“The same guy that wasn’t going to let him in the camp was the same guy who fought for him to get MVP,” said Derrick Tatum, who trains DeAngelo at Atlanta’s Elite Talent Football Academy.
It didn’t take long for colleges to begin taking notice. His father, Deon, estimates that “14 or 15 schools” have offered his son. Fleetwood notes that “almost the entire SEC” checked on him in the spring. Included in his group of suitors are powers such as Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia and South Carolina.
However, Gibbs’ journey to being the next can’t-miss recruit isn’t just about his athletic prowess.
Long before he ever surfaced on the recruiting radar, Gibbs has been trained for these moments on and off the field. He carries a 3.7 GPA and plans to graduate high school early. He’s heavily involved in his church’s youth programs, which Deon credits for keeping his son grounded and humble amid his growing celebrity.
Genetics were kind to DeAngelo as well. His family lineage is littered with athletic excellence.
Two of his uncles, Jake Reed and Dale Carter, starred in the NFL for more than a decade. His mother, Karen—who now works as an assistant principal in the metro Atlanta area—competed in four sports in college and is a member of the Miles College (Alabama) Hall of Fame. His older sisters, Destinie and Lydia, are currently playing college basketball at USC and Truett-McConnell College, respectively.
While it’s only a matter of time until he becomes a 5-star recruit, it’s the years of learning from a 5-star support system that have DeAngelo Gibbs on the fast track to success on the field and in life.
“I tell DeAngelo all the time, ‘we’re built for this! The bloodline is real.’” — Jake Reed
Destinie Gibbs remembers receiving her first letter from a college program when she was in 10th grade. More so than the joy of receiving her first offer, her fondest memory from that experience was the comical reaction from her baby brother.
“He was like, ‘why am I not getting any letters…I work so hard,’” Destinie says while laughing. “I was like, ‘DeAngelo, you’re in the fifth grade!’ I told him to calm down and that his time was coming. He’s always been very competitive.”
Back then, DeAngelo was a bustling young athlete excelling in baseball, basketball and football. However, he began to slowly gravitate more toward the gridiron.
Around five years ago, DeAngelo’s parents started an annual tradition by sending him to Dallas for the summer to stay with his uncle Jake, who spent the majority of his 12-year NFL career with the Vikings as part of a dynamic receiving trio with Cris Carter and Randy Moss.
“As he got older and started coming down here (Dallas) every summer and he started working with me, you could see the football side of him come out more,” Reed said. “We didn’t do basketball because I’m a football guy and we’re a football family. You could start to see his talent come out more when he was with us.”
Jake—who still refers to DeAngelo as “Papa,” a name which he gave him when he was very young—would take him and his son, J.R., through a series of daily workouts led by trainers and former NFL players Omar Stoutmire, George Adams and Clay Mack. These workouts also featured some of the top prep players in Texas, such as Adams’ son—current LSU safety and former 5-star recruit Jamal Adams—and J.R., who enrolled at Tulsa last month.
DeAngelo spent his early years in football playing skill positions such as quarterback, running back and receiver.
Reed worked diligently with his nephew on the finer points of playing receiver. In fact, Reed recalls Baylor offering DeAngelo a scholarship as a receiver just months prior to his freshman year. But as DeAngelo returned home to Georgia and began to gain weight and mass, he worked with Tatum on learning the nuances of playing corner.
The rigorous training schedule helped him learn the work ethic and techniques necessary to maximize his enormous potential.
“He’s training with guys who can and do push him,” Reed said. “He’s able to see how hard he has to train to be elite. He works like a dog because he knows he has to get better. A lot of kids don’t have that outlet.”
Destinie credits the family environment that DeAngelo has grown up in as a critical factor in allowing him to develop as a student-athlete. Eric Lee, who is the pastor of Springfield Baptist Church in Conyers, Georgia, where the Gibbs family have been members for more than a decade, agrees.
“The community that surrounds him and the family that surrounds him, those factors gave him such a great head start to where he is today,” Lee said. “And as his father typically says, it’s taken a village of people to continue to allow him to cultivate and maximize his God-given talent.”
“We don’t raise dumb jocks in our family. That’s just not what we are trying to do. With a 3.7 GPA, he hasn’t been given that. That’s something that he’s worked for and something his mom has been very involved in.” — Jake Reed
Given Karen’s background as an educator, the Gibbs family has always placed more emphasis on the student aspect of being a student-athlete with DeAngelo.
Even during his summer trips to Big D, and despite a training schedule with two, and sometimes three, workouts a day, Reed noted that his sister made a list of books for her son to read and then write subsequent reports on.
“Just as hard as he’s working on his athletic skills, he’s doing classwork all summer long,” Reed said. “She pushes education first. He just doesn’t have school off in the summertime. Not in that house.”
DeAngelo learned the importance of academics in the recruiting process after watching Destinie go through it.
“We always try to make sure that he understands that in order for him to be the best player he can be, or the player he aspires to be, you have to be the best scholar you can be,” Destinie said. “Because without those grades, Nick Saban doesn’t want you. UGA doesn’t want you, or any other colleges, because you can’t even get into their school.”
Fleetwood notes that DeAngelo has asked for and received his blessing on occasion to arrive late at football practice in order to put extra time in the classroom. It’s something that he encourages because of the attention and focus that his star pupil displays with regard to his classwork.
“He’s serious about it (academics),” Fleetwood said. “He’s a student-athlete. I believe deep down there’s a correlation between the two. A true competitor wants to compete as much in the math classes as he does on the football field. He’s got that burning desire in him. He doesn’t just want to get by. He wants to do the best he can do. I think a lot of times, that comes from home.”
Lee—who notes that as an eighth-grader, DeAngelo used the Heimlich maneuver to save the life of a classmate who was choking—said that part of what makes him rare is the maturity he displays in everyday life.
“He’s a very unique kid,” Lee said. “His social development is not second to his football development. People want to follow him. I would suggest that is more out of the way he carries himself more so than being a vocal leader. You can see it in how he treats other people. He never makes people feel less special or important than he is.”
“You would think he’s a senior the way he goes about doing things and the way he carries himself. He’s serious. He leaves that locker room door to go to work, and he really goes to work. He is not a guy that takes it for granted. I think that’s a really good thing.” — Mark Fleetwood, head coach, Peachtree Ridge HS
That’s how long DeAngelo lasted on the ninth-grade team before being moved up to varsity. An injury to the team’s best corner pressed Fleetwood to plug in his talented freshman against defending 6A state champion Norcross.
Gibbs’ assignment was to cover Blue Devils star receiver Chris Herndon, a 6’4”, 230-pound senior who was verbally committed to Miami. Tatum recalls watching film with DeAngelo that week in preparation for the first major test of his playing career.
Figuring they would have a mismatch, Norcross tried to attack Gibbs early in the game. On their first attempt throwing at him, Gibbs picked it off.
“It wasn’t a badly thrown ball either,” Fleetwood said. “It was an out route, an intermediate out route about 14 or 16 yards, and he stepped right in front of it on our sideline and picked it off.”
According to Tatum, Norcross would target Herndon another eight times that evening. He ended with zero receptions, while Gibbs recorded four pass breakups.
“I remember it because it was one of the best games I’ve seen a corner play against a top receiver,” Tatum said.
Two weeks later, Gibbs drew 4-star Missouri commitment Nate Brown—who entered the game having caught 18 touchdowns on the season, including at least one in every game.
Gibbs ended the streak, limiting him to just three receptions.
“After that, I told him he will be the No. 1 cornerback in the country next year,” Tatum said. “Some people laughed at me when they heard that.”
Less than a year after his prep debut, Tatum’s prediction came true. 247Sports named Gibbs as the No. 1 corner prospect and the No. 5 player overall in its initial 2017 class rankings.
He was also one of just three 2017 prospects to earn a coveted invitation to the 2014 Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge, joining Louisiana phenom Dylan Moses and fellow Georgia standout Richard LeCounte. As Mike Farrell of Rivals noted, Gibbs turned in a dominant performance in a showcase featuring the nation's top prep talent.
With the recruiting process set to crank up for Gibbs, it’s just the next step in a journey he’s prepared for his whole life. Hype, social media and the notoriety that comes with being a top recruit are all things his inner circle have preached to him about.
“You want people to take him seriously when he opens his mouth,” Reed said. “We tell him about all of the pitfalls and how to handle himself around people. We’ve talked to him about social media. We want to teach him about these things so that he can see them before they are coming and try to head them off.”
Another thing the Gibbs family has focused on with him is handling the attention from colleges and coaches. Regardless of whether it's Georgia or Georgia State showing interest in him, his approach in dealing with every school will remain the same.
“His mom told me about a story of him speaking with a coach from a smaller school who was talking to some of the other kids on his team, and that coach told him, ‘I know you are probably not going to come to our school, but I appreciate you stopping by and talking to us,’” Reed recalls. “He’s that type of kid. He’s not going to get on his high horse and say a school is too small to visit with or things like that. He’s going to give them that time and respect because they came out to see him.”
Before he took over at Peachtree Ridge, Fleetwood spent 22 years coaching on the college level, with most of them coming under Larry Blakeney at Troy (Alabama) University.
He discovered and recruited the likes of DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora to the Trojans program. While the pass-rushing duo were lightly regarded as recruits, Fleetwood notices some similarities between them and his new protege.
“I see a young man right here that’s a 10th-grader in high school, and I watched those other guys when they were coming out. He is going to be a lot farther along than those guys when he gets to his senior year if he continues on his current path,” Fleetwood said. “It’s because of his work habits and his maturity and his desire to want to compete and practice well and do the little things.”
While there’s a long time in between now and national signing day for the 2017 class, DeAngelo is well on his way to becoming a household name in recruiting circles.
His sophomore season got off to a fast start. Playing receiver, he caught six passes for 142 yards and a score against Archer—a team that features a trio of defensive backs who possess offers from Power Five schools.
However, most of his work came in one half of football, as he left the game with a knee injury in the third quarter that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Still, it was yet another glimpse of the talent that people around Gibbs feel is destined to lead him to big things in the future.
“He’s one of those kids that works hard and enjoys life,” Reed said. “I think he’s going to be a great asset to any university. He’s got the grades, he’s going to work hard in the classroom and he’s going to be a leader on your football team, and he’s going to make the team better.”
“He’s just that type of talent that any skill position on the field, he can play it. He’s just that talented. That’s the joy of working with a kid like that. When you get a kid like that, you can put him anywhere.” — Jake Reed
The scary part about the exploits of DeAngelo Gibbs is that he’s still only scratching the surface of his immense potential.
Regardless of what the future holds, DeAngelo and his family have a plan for it.
Thanks to a support system littered with experience and wisdom surrounding him, he’s been aptly prepared for the pitfalls and spoils that come with the increased attention.
If his past is any indicator, Gibbs is primed to take the recruiting world by storm.
“He’s a true student-athlete,” Fleetwood said. “To watch his work ethic, he comes here every day thinking he needs to get better. It’s a really neat thing to see a young man as talented as he is with that type of attitude. He has the desire to want to be great and to be recognized for doing things the right way.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.