It hasn't taken Stephon Gilmore very long to impress his Buffalo Bills teammates.
Whether it's the soft-spoken, level-headed approach the rookie cornerback takes off the field, or the aggressiveness and speed he's shown in going stride-for-stride with a receiver in coverage, the first-round draft pick has begun drawing raves three days into training camp.
“I don't know how to say it, but he's up there with some of the DBs in the league who've been playing for a couple of years, and he hasn't even played one play,” receiver Stevie Johnson said Saturday. “Really, I don't want to speak too highly, but it's hard to not speak highly of somebody that can play as well as he has from rookie minicamp all the way up until now.”
Johnson is not alone in touting Gilmore, who was drafted 10th overall out of South Carolina.
“He's earned our respect already,” receiver David Nelson said. “Every time you go against him, you've got to be ready. You know you're going to get everything he has, and it's going to be that way when the ball's snapped until the whistle.”
Or just ask Derek Hagan. During practice Friday, Hagan found himself wide open on an underneath route ready to make an easy catch, only to have Gilmore close in and break up the play from behind.
“He's definitely going to be one hell of a player for this team,” Hagan said. “As long as he keeps working and keeps his head on straight, the sky's the limit.”
A swelling ego shouldn't be a concern for Gilmore, who hasn't seemed fazed or awed by anything he's yet encountered in Buffalo.
“I'm more of a serious guy,” the 21-year-old said. “There's not too much that gets under my skin. I just keep a level head.”
That was evident on the night of the draft, when Gilmore showed little hint of emotion while making his way to the podium at Radio City Music Hall after being selected by the Bills. The only time Gilmore's looked at all uncomfortable was a day later, upon arriving in Buffalo, when his mother shared stories with reporters about how precocious her son was as a child.
Otherwise, Gilmore hardly has anything to say, aside from a polite “Yes, sir.” And he is quick to shrug off compliments, such as the time Gilmore was praised by Johnson.
“That's a good thing, but I know I can be a better player than I am now,” Gilmore said. “I'm just a rookie, so I'm just trying to prove myself every day.”
Gilmore's proven plenty already after a successful three-year career at South Carolina, where he started all 40 games and was a duel threat, playing defense and returning kickoffs and punts. The NFL draft bio on Gilmore referred to him as “a player who might be the best product produced by (Gamecocks coach) Steve Spurrier since he took over the program in 2005.”
In Buffalo, he's being counted upon to immediately earn a starting job on defense the Bills spent much of the offseason retooling in a bid to generate more sacks and turnovers.
Gilmore hasn't looked out of place yet.
On Saturday, Gilmore wasn't fooled by Hagan's stutter move. Gilmore stayed in front of the receiver and made an over-the-shoulder interception just out of bounds.
Gilmore was beaten by Johnson a few plays later on a perfectly timed pass to the receiver's back shoulder. Gilmore made up for that by staying stride-for-stride with speedy running back C.J. Spiller up the sideline, breaking up a long pass attempt.
Whether it was getting beat or making a play, Gilmore's reaction was the same. He ran back toward the line of scrimmage, checked the defensive call and lined up for the next play.
Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt is struck by how mature and self-assured Gilmore has been.
“He doesn't come unraveled good or bad,” Wannstedt said. “I kind of sense there's a real steadiness to him and a real confidence that you don't see very often in rookies.”
Wannstedt also is impressed by the player's dedication, noting how Gilmore finds a seat in the front row for every defensive meeting – something not lost on Bills veterans.
“It's real tough to earn the respect of the veterans in OTA's,” Wannstedt said, referring to the Bills spring practices. “But I would say he's probably done it as fast as any rookie that I've been around.”