By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
COMPASS BOWL: Ole Miss vs. Pittsburgh Saturday, noon at Birmingham
OXFORD – Gilbert Pena’s path to college football was unconventional, so who can blame him if his thinking is, too?
Pena, a 6-foot-4, 317-pound nose tackle, wants the ball in his hands, and he doesn’t want to have to strip the quarterback to get it.
So Pena has had conversations with Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze about playing on offense. He’s not unfamiliar with that side of the ball.
“I was supposed to be a 265-pound tight end playing tight end in college. Then I took off for four years and put on 35 pounds. Now I’m playing straight nose tackle,” he said.
Pena claims to have finesse and hands that would make him a success at tight end. He recalls the glory of catching passes with friends in pick-up games in his native New York City.
The four years off were to help care for his mother who was battling cancer. When her cancer went into remission friends encouraged him to take up football again.
“I didn’t want to leave her alone. 18 years she’d been raising me, taking care of me. The least I could do was go out and get a job and kind of help her around the house and take some stress off her,” Pena said. “That’s exactly what they told me I needed to do. Cancer and stress, they don’t mix well with each other.”
Pena worked as a cook at an assisted living facility and in a plumbing and seating supply house. The money was good, and he was at first reluctant to pursue football.
But he did, and he had an all-conference season at a fledgling junior college in Brooklyn where he caught the attention of former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt.
Weight problems and conditioning were factors in an unremarkable debut season in 2011.
This season Pena was able to stay in games longer. He appeared in all 12, starting five, and finished with 30 tackles, 5.5 for losses and two sacks.
“Now I’m a 26-year-old guy about to graduate college and will hopefully get a chance to play on the next level,” he says.
Freeze believes Pena can succeed in the NFL.
“I’ve finally gotten to watch a few NFL games now that our (regular) season’s been over, and there are so many of them that are living in that 3-4 world where you have to have a 2-gap guy. I think Gilbert can do that,” Freeze said.
Freeze did not express the same confidence that Pena can help the Rebels at tight end against Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl this Saturday.
Freeze’s offensive creativity and the Rebels’ tight end situation make a possible Pena package worth keeping an eye on. Ole Miss is down one tight end due to academics, and another is less than 100 percent coming back from an early November knee injury.
“He’s eating me up about that,” Freeze says. “He wants the football.”