The Friday night lights of Texas high school football are what groomed Jeff Gladney.
No state boasts a more revered football culture. The throes of competition at New Boston High School got Gladney ready to play for the tough-minded Gary Patterson at TCU, who prepared him to play for Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, another old school taskmaster with a defensive bent.
“Coach Zim will be a mild cat compared to here,” Patterson joked with Twin Cities reporters on a Zoom call.
Gladney spent five years under the longtime TCU coach, honing his craft as a cornerback in the pass-heavy Big 12, often practicing in over 100-degree temperatures. Between high school and college, he’s spent nearly a decade in the heat of high-level Texas football, where the weak can be weeded out quickly. Gladney, taken by the Vikings with the 31st overall pick, brings to Minnesota a fierce competitive edge that is easily explained by his football background.
High school years
Gladney began in high school as a wide receiver with electrifying speed and after-the-catch ability. Jamey Thomas was initially Gladney’s offensive coordinator, but in 2013 Thomas accepted New Boston’s head coaching job and watched Gladney turn into an all-district defensive back that exceled as a two-way player.
“He’s just got that natural ability to be where the ball is,” Thomas said in an interview with Zone Coverage. “He played every sport, basketball, ran track. Whatever he was doing he wanted to be the one to have the ball. His aggressive on the field and his ability to know where to be to make plays was what he was good at.”
As a junior in 2013, Gladney led New Boston to the program’s first-ever state Class 3A semifinal berth. Their quarterfinal victory came against six-time champion Daingerfield, which featured Baylor-bound wide receiver Denzel Mims. Mims, a likely pick in Friday’s second round, only made one reception for 10 yards against the Gladney-led defense.
Even in high school, Gladney was showing signs of his competitive fire.
“You’ve kind of got to be that way a little bit to be good at football,” Thomas said. “He never got out of hand or anything like that. The game started, the lights come on, you knew he was going to be out there, probably be the most competitive person on the field. Didn’t want to get beat, and you knew he was going to be around the play.”
Gladney says his competitive juices go back further, to his upbringing in a sports-centric family with three older brothers. His uncle Wayne Jefferson was also Gladney’s AAU coach growing up.
“I would say my bloodlines [are my source of competitiveness] because we’re an athletic family, competitive family for sure,” Gladney said on a conference call Friday morning. “So even at just family functions we’re just all competing. I know exactly where it came from, racing my little cousins every day, and all of that.”
New Boston was a smaller town of around 5,000, hence a lower football classification. Gladney wasn’t recruited by many major-conference programs, but he wasted no time in wooing TCU at their one-day football camp before his senior season. Patterson said he was impressed by Gladney’s technique — and his speed. According to Thomas, Gladney was timed at 4.32 seconds for his 40-yard dash that day.
“I put a premium on speed,” Patterson said.
Injury adversity has tried to slow Gladney in recent years, which is part of the reason he ran nearly a 4.5 at the combine. Gladney tore his ACL as a high school senior, which forced him to redshirt as a freshman with the Horned Frogs. As a junior, he played through an ankle injury. As a senior, he played through a meniscus tear that caused him to have minor surgery after the combine. Gladney wasn’t 100 percent during his combine workouts, which likely impacted his 4.48 40-yard dash and combine-worst 3-cone drill. But the 23-year-old felt like he was sending a message by running through the pain.
“The Combine, it was just all heart,” he said. “I wanted to show everybody what I had before I had the surgery, so made sure I pushed it behind that. I’m ready to go now.”
Despite his early ACL rehab, Gladney played in 44 games in his TCU career, starting 32. Over his final two seasons, Pro Football Focus tracked Gladney as forcing a 79.5% incompletion rate on downfield throws and a 78.2% incompletion rate on contested catches. That knack for sticking to receivers vertically may translate well to the next level.
After his junior season, Gladney considered a move to the draft but opted to return to continue his maturation on the football field and complete his degree. Gladney graduated in December with a major in criminal justice. Some might say he earned a second degree in the Gary Patterson School of Defense, a complex match zone scheme that demands precise communication, in which Gladney toiled for half a decade.
“One time in practice, he was one of the guys – when everybody was down – where he took the [first-team] reps, the [second-team] reps and the [third-team] reps,” Patterson said, “just so we could get through practice. And that’s in 112-115 degree heat. You’re talking about a guy that’s tough, who can handle Coach Zim.
“Let me just say that him and I are about the same. Here’s how many passing yards we want them to get: Zero. Anything over zero is not good. … And Jeff’s going to be able to handle that. He’s from East Texas. He’s country tough.”
That toughness drew Zimmer to Gladney, even if it occasionally got the better of the fiery corner. Gladney was suspended half a game for targeting after an illegal hit against Texas Tech last year, and he was nearly ejected a second time for his fight with Iowa State receiver Joe Scates. When discussing Gladney’s role in the skirmish on KFAN Radio Thursday night, Zimmer — almost amused — chuckled at the incident.
“He’s one of those guys that doesn’t want to back down,” Zimmer said.
Iowa State laid the smack down on TCU, but we almost had Smack at the Jack, part II. This skirmish between Joe Scates and TCU’s Jeff Gladney resulted in offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, but no ejections.
Matt Campbell called it a “learning lesson” for Scates. pic.twitter.com/vqiOT6nDJz
— SoundOFF (@SoundOFF13) October 5, 2019
Patterson demanded a lot from Gladney, who was forced to defend receivers of all sizes with both press and off coverage. He shut down 6’5″ Iowa State receiver Hakeem Butler in 2018. First-round pick CeeDee Lamb out of Oklahoma only managed one reception against Gladney when they met last November. Gladney’s high school nemesis Denzel Mims was held without a catch in regulation during Baylor’s triple-overtime victory over TCU. In practice, Gladney went up against fellow first-round pick and sprinter Jalen Reagor.
— Paul Gonzales (@realCoachG) March 28, 2020
“If you need me to be physical and match up with the big receiver, I can do that,” Gladney said. “If you need me to just use my feet, be quick and use my hips and feet on a smaller receiver, I can do that also. Really, if they want to put their main player in the slot, I can travel into the slot if I have to.”
Gladney spoke with Thomas, his old high school coach, Friday morning and told him he’s excited to play under Zimmer, who has an affinity for developing young defensive backs, as well as a mandate for perfection. Gladney doesn’t think that will be a problem. He’s been coached hard his whole life.
“It’s the message and not the delivery,” Gladney said, “so once your learn that, you’re pretty good with any coach. It doesn’t matter who’s coaching.”