James Gilbert never has struggled holding onto the football. That’s the word he uses — “never” — three times in the span of two sentences.
Each of the past two games for Kansas State, however, ball security has been an issue for Gilbert, the team’s starting running back. He fumbled once against Oklahoma State on Sept. 28. The Cowboys recovered, and went on to score the game’s first touchdown, putting them up 10-0 in the first quarter of a contest they went on to win 26-13.
Gilbert then put the ball on the ground two more times in last week’s 31-12 home loss to Baylor; Gilbert recovered both fumbles.
That tidbit didn’t provide much solace for him, though.
“That’s the worst thing (you can do as a running back): put the ball on the ground,” he said. “I’ve got to get that fixed. I haven’t fumbled a lot in my career, but it’s just happened. I’ve got to get it fixed and get better.”
Gilbert’s assertion that he hasn’t fought fumble issues in the past isn’t without merit. Though high school statistics are notoriously difficult to track down — and in the case of looking for fumble-specific numbers, nigh impossible — The Mercury looked back at Gilbert’s Ball State career. Prior to joining the Wildcats as a graduate transfer in the spring, Gilbert starred for the Cardinals.
From 2015 to 2018, Gilbert ran for 2,806 yards and 30 touchdowns on 603 carries. All three of those totals rank among the top 10 in Ball State’s annals. And he accomplished those numbers without putting the team’s defense in precarious situations.
Per The Mercury’s research, Gilbert touched the ball 624 times (he caught 21 passes in addition to his 603 rushes) in 38 games as a Cardinal.
He fumbled just twice; he lost only one.
He didn’t fumble in 2018 or his injury-shortened 2017 campaign, when he took a medical redshirt after playing in only the first three games.
The only fumble he lost came in Ball State’s game at Indiana on Sept. 10, 2016. It occurred at a costly time for the Cardinals: down 10-0, they had first-and-goal at the Hoosiers’ 5-yard line when Gilbert coughed up the football. Indiana went on to win 30-20.
Gilbert’s other fumble was against Ohio — coincidentally, like the Indiana contest, also the second game of Ball State’s season — in 2015. Ball State quarterback Riley Neal recovered the fumble, though Ohio won going away, 48-31.
So for a player who now has more fumbles in the last two games than he did in four years at his previous school, the recent events have bothered Gilbert to no end.
“This is getting frustrating for me, because I’ve never put the ball on the ground like this,” he said. “It’s starting to happen in back-to-back (games). So I’ve got to fix that.”
Gilbert isn’t sure exactly why he’s suddenly losing control of the ball at a dizzying rate given his history.
“I feel like I’ve got the ball high and tight,” he said, “but I think on initial contact going down to the ground, I feel like I’m letting the ball come loose and it’s going all over the place.”
Gilbert’s fumbles clearly have flustered Chris Klieman as well. K-State’s head coach didn’t even let a reporter finish a question about the recent issues Saturday before he started his answer.
“I was a little frustrated, yeah,” Klieman said. “That’s part of the reason why we went with Joe (Ervin) a little bit more. I know (Gilbert) got a couple of them back, but it’s something that we have to be able to shore up. We can’t afford to turn the football over, without question.”
Gilbert still ended as the top rusher Saturday, running 18 times for 94 yards. Ervin, a true freshman, was next in line for the Wildcats, carrying five times for 21 yards. Ervin subbing in for him, Gilbert said, didn’t get under his skin.
“I knew Joe was going to play,” Gilbert said. “Joe got reps during the week with us, the ones, so I feel like he was going to play regardless.”
With K-State now in the middle of its second open date of the season, the only member of the coaching staff media members will speak with this week is Klieman, which will come during his weekly Tuesday press conference. Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham and running backs coach Brian Anderson will be available next week. Those hoping for Messingham and Anderson’s thoughts on Gilbert’s fumble follies will have to wait, for now.
But Messingham made it clear back in February how important holding onto the football is in his offense. Because of Messingham’s preferred style of play, the tailback touches the ball, early and often.
That makes ball security compulsory.
“Taking care of the football, having that thing high and tight, get tackled or don’t get tackled, you get up or you get in the end zone and you hand it to the official,” Messingham said at the time. “Their mindset has to be that thing’s worth a million dollars to everybody out there from the standpoint of, ‘It’s worth a lot. Take care of the football.’ We’re going to put it in those tailbacks’ hands, so they need to take care of the football.”