STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It started on the Tuesday before the Michigan State game four weeks ago.
Whenever he saw junior defensive end David Gilbert, University of Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema would utter a single word, "potential." It's almost like it became Gilbert's new name.
"He calls me 'Potential,'" Gilbert said. "He wants me to be the person he knows I can be, basically. He thinks I can be a great player."
In sports, potential can be a crippling label for a player. Bielema went so far as to say it to Gilbert's parents, as well.
"I'm honored and flattered," Gilbert said. "I'm not going to tell him no. It's just steps and grinding. It's hard work.
"I built my role on this defense, based on the effort I give and doing my best all of the time. When you try to make that step from good to great — when you want to be the next J.J. Watt or O.B. (O'Brien Schofield) — it's not going to be easy.
"Every little thing that's hindering your technique from being perfect, you have to attack it and attack it with an open mind, be your own worst critic."
It's hard to predict precisely when the moment will come, when Gilbert finally delivers on his immense reserves of untapped potential — but the people around him acknowledge it's close to happening.
"I think he's kicking the door down," defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "His overall performance, he's starting to play at a different level. I'm very excited about his progress."
Like Gilbert, UW's defense also appears to be on the verge of big things heading into Saturday's regular-season finale at Penn State. The Badgers (7-4, 4-3) have allowed an average of 15.3 points in their past six Big Ten Conference games.
UW held Ohio State to 236 total yards, 209 fewer than its average, in last week's 21-14 overtime loss to the Buckeyes.
In the past three games — which has included two overtime losses — the defense has given up just four touchdowns in regulation play.
"After the Michigan State game, in the bye week, we kind of came together and said, 'We're facing three of the best offenses in the league these final three weeks,'" junior linebacker Chris Borland said of Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State. "'It's going to be a tall task but we're up for it.'
"The way our defense has performed in the last two games has been great and we're hoping to finish it (Saturday)."
Gilbert could be viewed as one of the final pieces. As well as the defense has played in just about every area the past two games, a disruptive player on the edge has been one of the missing ingredients.
Borland, who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury but hopes to play Saturday, has provided some of that as a third-down rusher with a team-high 4½ sacks. Gilbert is second with four sacks and his eight tackles for loss are third on the defense.
"I really want it, I see it coming," Gilbert said. "I could go from potential to actually being the guy."
Gilbert, from Coral Springs, Fla., admittedly had plenty of growing up to do after enrolling early at UW as a 17-year-old freshman in January 2009. He recently turned 21.
"I'm just like, who is that guy?" he said of looking back at himself as a freshman. "It feels like not too long ago, but it was a really long time ago, so much time, so much growth and it's not over."
Gilbert has always been an impressive athlete, but he was 6-foot-4 and 214 pounds when he signed with the Badgers. He now carries a sculpted 250 pounds, but he has grown just as much off of the field.
"He has grown up as a person," Partridge said. "It's showing in football. It's the same thing I saw with O.B. He grew up as a young man and his football exploded. That's what's happening with David, right in front of our eyes."
Gilbert admittedly had a big misstep before the Nebraska game, when he made critical comments about Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez's throwing motion that got national attention.
Partridge, who is from the same hometown and recruited Gilbert, made the decision to sit him for the start of the game.
"I kind of reverted, versus Nebraska, to being a younger guy, sparking off," Gilbert said. "It was just pure excitement, but something I learned from. You've got to be political when you speak and give credit where credit is due."
Time nearly out
Gilbert will get a chance to correct that mistake next week when the Badgers face Nebraska in the Big Ten title game.
"I'm more ready physically than I was for the first game," he said. "It's going to be exciting to come out there and get a second chance at redemption, for a great opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl for the third time. That's our ultimate goal."
Earlier this week, Bielema had all of the juniors stay after a team meeting. There are 26 on the team and Gilbert was struck by both the numbers and the experience in the room.
While there is much left to accomplish this season, Bielema wanted to send an early message about the process of becoming seniors. Gilbert is excited as anyone to have one more full year to reach his potential.
"I understand why seniors play so much better football," he said of the lessons he has learned. "I've already started counting down. I've only got 15 or 16 games left in my college career. It's definitely hitting me. I definitely want to reach my goals as a player."