Asked to find a play that shows what his star receiver is all about, Widener football coach Mike Barainyak goes back to his team’s opener at Rowan. A 50-50 kind of game, and a 50-50 ball in the air.
That’s the way it looked on the replay that Barainyak put on a screen -- James Gillespie well covered as the ball left his quarterback’s hands, then a move, a jump, odds changing by the millisecond … his ball.
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“We’re just going to find out, is our better than your guy?’’ Barainyak said, remembering it was a one-score game with Rowan at that point, fourth quarter, third-and-18. “We like our percentage.’’
“He flashes his hands late,’’ Barainyak said of that play. “He does all the intangible things. He’s running hard, selling the vertical route, on the back-shoulder fade -- knows it’s going to come, is able to slam on the brakes at the sticks, flashes his hands late. He’s going to elevate late.”
In those situations, his coach said, “James wants the ball in his hands. He’s the type, he comes up to me during a game, ‘I think I can get this on him. Coach, give me the ball, give me a shot.’ He’s extremely competitive.”
Through four games, Gillespie has astonishing numbers -- 34 catches, nine scores. On Widener’s third offensive play Saturday in a 41-13 victory at Alvernia, Gillespie caught a pass for 68 yards and the first of his three TDs, and ended up with 200 yards on nine catches.
He may be Widener’s football star, but he isn’t the best-known Gillespie brother playing college sports around here right now. His little brother, Collin, starts at guard for Villanova and played a strong role off the bench the last time Villanova won an NCAA title.
That doesn’t seem to bother big brother even a little bit, the extra recognition. But even his coach notes, it probably helps drive the older one.
“Me and my brother are the most competitive siblings in the entire world,’’ James said, sitting last week in Widener’s football office. “We used to, like, get off our school bus down the street and we’d race home. We’d drop our bags and whoever won got first ball on the pickup court, on the driveway.”
Or the seasons would change, so the sport would change, “intertwining,’’ as James put it.. Around the neighborhood, the brothers were always being split up, which meant they were going at each other. “Always competing,’’ James said.
Collin gets to Widener for football games and was in the tunnel after James broke his collarbone in three places last season, ending his season in Week 4. James is a regular up the Blue Route, and also got to San Antonio for the 2018 Final Four.
“It was awesome, so cool,’’ James said of that memory.
Barainyak doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence, those daily pickup games as little guys translating to college performance.
“I think in modern-day sports, in modern-day football, everybody judges athleticism by what you see in the NFL combine,’’ Widener’s coach said. “How much can you lift? How fast is your 40?
"A lot of times, when you get the kid out here who is good at all the schoolyard stuff -- adjusting his body, making a one-handed catch, catching a ball in traffic, getting his feet down, body control in the air -- that’s true athleticism that I think you see turn over on to a field and make plays on third-and-18.”
Barainyak, an Archbishop Wood graduate like the Gillespies, knows what Collin has done at Villanova, and that he is a former Catholic League basketball MVP.
“James -- that’s his big brother,’’ the first-year head coach said. “I’ll get emotional talking about him. I’ve got a 7-month-old son at home, if he grows up to be like James Gillespie, then I did my job.”
Barainyak said that part at a weekly football luncheon after the opener. (Coincidently, at Villanova.) Right after, Rowan coach Jay Accorsi got up to talk about that game won by Widener, 38-28.
“He was the difference,’’ Accorsi immediately said of Gillespie. “I wish he wasn’t playing football. I wish he was playing another sport. He was different. We had a hard time covering him.”
As it happens, the plan is for Gillespie to join Widener’s basketball team after his football season ends.
Widener basketball coach Chris Carideo said Gillespie has some skills, is a good defender, plays extremely hard. Bringing his leadership over from football is nothing but a positive, Carideo said. “He will bring an edge to our team.”