Tina Ward is used to watching her loved ones battle — in sports and on the front lines.
Her first husband spent years overseas as a Marine and then completed his career working at the Pentagon. Her second husband, an Army sergeant, died in a training exercise.
Her oldest son is a wrestler. Her second son is a college defensive lineman. And her third son is a high school senior who plays defensive end and tight end.
“I’ve been doing this for a while,” Tina said.
But Greg Gilmore, her second son and an LSU senior, is testing his mother’s strength. He plays, arguably, the most brutal position in football, taking more hits from more players than any other.
The position — nose tackle — is one of the more important in a 3-4 defense, too, and it is, unquestionably, the most selfless spot on defense.
“My baby is always on the bottom of the pile,” Tina said. “They always double- and triple-team him. It’s rough sometimes.”
This has been her son’s life for the past 20 months, and he hopes it remains his life for another few years.
Gilmore’s college career comes to an end — at least at home — on Saturday night when No. 19 LSU hosts Texas A&M. He’s one of 20 seniors the school plans to honor in a pregame ceremony.
Coach Ed Orgeron and many of his coaching fraternity members often speak of the middle of a defense defining a unit.
“You’re only as good as you are up the middle,” Orgeron said this summer, “the nose, inside linebacker and safety.”
Gilmore is this team’s man in the middle. Who would have thought it? Not even him — not after his first two years in Baton Rouge. Gilmore did not play in a single significant snap in 2014 and 2015. But he’ll finish his career having started his final two seasons.
He avoided something that plagues many — a highly touted high school player becoming a college “bust.”
“I’m not a highly emotional guy, but it will be surreal when I think back,” he said. “Only time I really get emotional is when I think about where I came from and how it escalated.”
Where did he come from? How did it escalate?
“I came from the bottom — a five-star bust,” he said. “I was always in the media reading. I didn’t know how to practice, couldn’t do anything right. Had little self-confidence in myself.”
The second question takes longer to explain. After all, it’s not often in major college football that a player is an afterthought in Years 1 and 2 and an every-down, essential starting member in Years 4 and 5.
Gilmore did it. And momma is oh-so proud.
“He made it. He made it through,” Tina said. “It’s another hurdle in his life that he’s accomplished. I’m proud of the man he’s become. He’s never lost sight of the finish line. He stuck it out.”
Tina is speaking Wednesday afternoon while driving through South Carolina in a rental car with her four other children, just an hour into a 13-hour haul to Baton Rouge. The family is making its annual visit for Greg’s birthday, Nov. 28, and to celebrate Thanksgiving.
This year’s trip includes a bonus — it’s Senior Day — and a penalty: the five of them are shoved in a tiny Kia Sol. Tina reserved an SUV. The rental car company did not oblige.
“My third son,” she said laughing, “is 6-foot-6.”
On Sunday, hours after he completes his first regular season as LSU’s permanent football coach, Ed Orgeron gets an early Christmas gift — recruiting.
Her family is not close, Tina said, it is “very close.” Even Gilmore’s father, Tina’s ex-husband Glenn, remains a big part of the group.
This family is bumbling through South Carolina on Thanksgiving Eve: Tina, 25-year-old Richard, 17-year-old Jonathan, 6-year-old Christian and 3-year-old Marly, the only girl. Tina, originally from the Bronx in New York, has an explanation for the 11-year age gap between Son No. 3 and Son No. 4: “I started over,” she laughs.
The family is growing. Greg’s girlfriend of six years is due in March.
“I play for my mom. I play for my family. Got a little girl on the way,” Gilmore said from the bowels of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium last weekend while signing autographs for fans during his walk from the locker room to the team bus. “I’m trying to get my name called in the draft.”
For two years now, Gilmore has been the overshadowed man of a defense that is one of the nation’s best. The Tigers enter the regular season finale 15th in total defense, 16th in scoring and 30th in rushing after posting rankings last year of 10th, 13th and 5th in the same categories.
The only common denominator on LSU’s front seven the past two years, excluding the injured Arden Key, is Gilmore.
He’s the man tugging on the strings for those tackle-gobbling middle linebackers — last year Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley and this year Devin White.
White leads the SEC in tackles and has, on many occasions with reporters, credited LSU’s defensive ends and nose tackles for that accomplishment.
In a 3-4 defense, the members of the front line have selfless jobs, especially the nose tackle, oftentimes taking on two offensive linemen at a time. Their goal: prevent the offensive line from reaching linebackers with potential run-springing blocks. Gilmore and White had a conversation about this exact task recently.
“We were talking (while) playing Arkansas, and the center was reaching (the linebackers) a lot,” Gilmore said. “He’s like, ‘Why aren’t you holding that center for me?’ I said, ‘You’re at 100 tackles. That’s your cut-off point.’”
Gilmore was kidding, of course. White finished that game with 14 tackles.
At 6-4, 308 pounds, Gilmore is a somewhat undersized nose tackle. Just look at his backups, two guys recruited to play nose in a 3-4: freshman Tyler Shelvin is 355 pounds, and sophomore Ed Alexander is listed at 340.
He combats the lack of size with film study and technique, he said.
Nose tackle is one of two significant differences from the 4-3 scheme, along with Key’s edge-rushing role. It is essential.
Defensive line coach Pete Jenkins, 76, learned that importance years ago from a man named Bear Bryant.
“You need a good center on offense and a good nose on defense,” Jenkins said Bryant told him. “It’s that ole saying, ‘If you’re strong right up the middle, you’re going to be pretty good.’ That goes for almost every sport.”
Each defensive lineman in many 3-4 defenses is expected to command double teams on offensive players, said Kevin Mawae, the former LSU center and eight-time NFL Pro Bowler. In many 3-4 schemes — including Dave Aranda’s defense — linemen are responsible for two “gaps.” For example, the nose tackle is in charge of the center-guard gap on the right of him and on the left of him.
“You have to hold that double team for a split second,” Mawae said in an interview last year, “for that linebacker to come over the top and make the play.”
Gilmore aligns over the center each play, and each play the center and one of the guards crash down upon him. The hardest part is not knowing which guard is coming.
That’s where film study helps, he said. Still, holding or bashing through double teams is no easy task. It’s a 1-on-2 and the two weigh a combined 600 pounds.
“Playing that nose is something serious, having to two-gap,” guard Garrett Brumfield said. “They have dual responsibilities. Anything that comes in either one of those gaps, it’s their jobs to stop. It can sound kind of easy, but you have guys trying to double-team you, move you out of those gaps, guys can knock you off-balance.”
The tackles and sacks often go to the linebackers, defensive ends and outside linebackers. That’s just how the defense is crafted.
Even so, Gilmore is sixth on the team with 46 tackles and second with 5.5 sacks.
“The things he’s doing right now …” starting defensive end Rashard Lawrence said. “He’s playing the best that we’ve seen him play. The plays he’s making are spectacular, and it’s tough, always having two, three guys on you.”
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Gilmore signed in 2013 as a defensive tackle in the team’s 4-3 defense under former coordinator John Chavis. He was ranked as the seventh-best defensive tackle in the nation that cycle, a five-star rated prospect by some.
He redshirted as a rookie and then played in a total of six games the next season, a little-used reserve who nearly transferred. He spent many nights at the family home of fellow defensive end Christian LaCouture.
LaCouture was a second-year starter on the line then.
“I remember him saying he wanted to transfer and leave. He wasn’t happy,” LaCouture recalled this week. “All of us were telling him to stay the course.”
All of us? That included LaCouture’s sister, mother and father. They were all a part of encouraging Gilmore to remain at LSU during those tough times.
“It was tough, a struggle,” Tina said. “You got the peer pressure of people drinking and smoking. He had to stay out of that. It was hard. He had his hard moments, but Greg is very strong.”
Orgeron took over LSU’s defensive line as a position coach in 2015, Gilmore’s redshirt sophomore season and the first in which he was part of a regular rotation. The coach recruited Gilmore while he was on staff at Southern Cal.
He recalls driving down the “old country roads” of Fayetteville, North Carolina, a military town in central North Carolina that is home to Fort Bragg, the largest military institution in the world by population as well as home to the Army's special operations.
“Greg didn't come to USC, so I came to LSU so I could coach him,” Orgeron joked. “I tease him about that all the time.”
Orgeron’s influence on Gilmore is summed up by the player in a single sentence: “Him coming here was probably the best thing to happen to me.”
NFL bound? He hopes so.
Gilmore has shown his versatility, playing defensive tackle in a 4-3, a defensive end spot in a 3-4 and, of course, nose tackle. Tina has spoken to scouts and agents about her son’s prospects in the draft.
“Third to fourth round is what we’re hearing,” she said.
This does not surprise her. Her second son has forever loved football with a passion, she said. As a sixth-grader, he was the youngest player on the varsity team at a small Christian school he first attended. There were not enough players to form a junior varsity squad.
He played tight end at the start of his high school career, before entering a game for a few snaps on the defensive line. Those few snaps resulted in a few sacks.
Greg Gilmore, defensive lineman, was born.
“Played it ever since,” he smiled.
His stepfather, Chris Werntz, never got to see the kid he toted to summer camps play in college. Sgt. Werntz died in 2010 during a training exercise in Georgia, something that shook this tight-knit family.
“They loved him,” Tina said. “He was a great stepfather to them. It took Greg hard.”
Those are distant memories for this family. Sure, they’ll never forget, but they are looking forward.
Saturday’s game is special for Gilmore — not just because of Senior Day. The game matches him against an old friend.
Chavis, now the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, recruited Gilmore. He’s a big reason he chose LSU over finalists Alabama, Oklahoma and Florida. The two stay connected, messaging each other usually before and after each season.
Gilmore will battle his old coach’s squad, taking on those double and triple teams as LSU’s overshadowed man in the middle — the guy who everyone thought was a bust.
“He used that to get better,” Tina said. “Everything that came out about him, he used it to get himself on that field to that starting position.”
A college football coach does not often reveal his strategy five days before a game.