LAKE FOREST – Alshon Jeffery and Stephon Gilmore grew up in South Carolina. They committed to play for the Gamecocks the same year, and then on the same day, they declared for the NFL draft.
Every day in Columbia, the two lined up opposite one another, Jeffery the standout wide receiver and Gilmore the long, physical cornerback. Those days, their jobs were to make each other better each week for the next SEC opponent.
On Sunday at Soldier Field, the two will surely get a few snaps lined up against one another again – for the first time since college and for the first time as NFL opponents.
“Every day since I went to South Carolina, [we] were the first ones that lined up together every snap, every one-on-one,” Gilmore said Thursday. “We got each other better every day. We pushed each other every day.”
At 6-1, 190 pounds, Gilmore has the size to put up with Jeffery, and that had to help Jeffery hone his craft as a receiver in college.
“It was great,” Jeffery said about the daily battles at South Carolina. “That’s what it took to get us there in the NFL. Every day was a battle with each other, and Sunday’s going to be a battle.”
The two have had somewhat opposite paths in their first two years in the league. Gilmore started every game as a rookie and had 16 passes defensed and three forced fumbles. He missed five games in 2013. Jeffery had a hand injury that derailed his rookie season, then he exploded in Year 2 en route to a Pro Bowl appearance.
Few corners know firsthand the type of damage Jeffery can do like Gilmore, and he said it’s all about spotting the football to keep Jeffery from dominating.
“Once you’ve got good coverage on him, you’ve got to find the ball because he can go up and make plays down the field, so you’ve got to find the ball, go up and get it,” he said.
The two text every once in a while with other fellow South Carolina alums, and Gilmore said they have “had a few words back and forth, but nothing real crazy.” Jeffery confirmed there hasn’t been any trash talk, which is not a surprise. Both players are soft spoken, so don’t expect to see playful jawing if they go one-on-one.
Maybe they get after it on the basketball court, as Gilmore twice mentioned how good Jeffery was on the hardwood in high school. Still, he wouldn’t get too competitive when asked who is better.
“We’re different players,” Gilmore said. “He’s more of a Paul Pierce and I’m probably like [Russell] Westbrook.”
In addition to playing against one another on the practice field, Gilmore and Jeffery did get to team up for a big play in the fourth quarter of the 2010 Peach Bowl. Gilmore was the ‘Wildcat’ and completed a 29-yard pass to Jeffery on a Gamecocks touchdown drive.
“Coach [Steve] Spurrier drew that play up,” Gilmore recalled. “I was in the Wildcat, I knew what type of receiver he was and I didn’t throw it deep, but I threw it real high so he could make a play on the ball.”
Jeffery also credited Spurrier with the play call, and pointed out that Gilmore was a high school quarterback.
Three years after they finished college together, Jeffery and Gilmore get to live out a dream together on the NFL field, where those practices in Columbia may trickle back into their memories.
“It’s pretty cool,” Jeffery said. “We talked all the time about if we played against each other, so the opportunity’s here.”