The votes have all been tallied and we have a winner in the Favorite Cincinnati Bearcat Football Player Since 1997 Tournament. If the headline didn’t already give it away, the winner is none other than Mardy Gilyard, who made a mockery of the championship round against Zach Collaros by winning 90.5 percent of the vote.
Clearly, Gilyard was destined to win this event, claiming every matchup on the way with at least 70 percent of the vote, including back-to-back triumphs with at least 90 percent in the last two rounds. As he marched to this victory, Gilyard out-dueled a veritable who’s who of UC greats, beating Ben Mauk, Brent Celek, Armon Binns, Connor Barwin, Antwan Peek and finally Collaros.
Gilyard came to UC in 2005 when Mark Dantonio was still the head coach. He was actually first utilized in the secondary after accruing more than 2,500 yards and 30 scores at Flagler Palm Coast High School, which is located on the east coast of Florida, pretty much directly between Jacksonville and Orlando. He only played sparingly in 2005 and then missed the entire 2006 season but finally got his chance to shine in 2007, when he took up his rightful spot as a wide reciever and kick returner, providing immense skill at both posts.
During the 2007 season, now playing under Brian Kelly, he appeared in 13 games and turned 36 receptions into 536 yards and three touchdowns. He got things going quickly, as well, tallying 134 yards and a touchdown on eight catches in the season opener. Along with his work on offense, Gilyard gave a glimpse of the special teams impact he would have, averaging 29.4 yards per kick return, although he was held out of the end zone.
In his last two seasons, Gilyard was as exciting a player as you could find. As the Bearcats built off their 10-win season in 2007, Gilyard amassed 1,276 yards and 11 touchdowns on 81 receptions and added in 994 yards and two scores via kickoff return during 2008. He had six games with at least 100 yards receiving and teamed with Dominick Goodman to form a wide receiver tandem that made opposing secondaries look like they were playing in slow motion.
Of his two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2008, his most impressive one was a 100-yard run against West Virginia, which came on the opening kickoff and served as a tone-setter for a 26-23 upset victory on the road. Gilyard would return 36 kicks that season in total, and average 27.6 yards per attempt. For his troubles, he was named a first-team All-Big East wide receiver and kick returner. Rivals.com also put him on its first-team All-American squad.
Trying to determine whether he was better in 2008 or 2009 is a somewhat tough task, but the answer is 2009. After such a strong ‘08 campaign, Gilyard had fewer receiving yards in 2009, but his 1,191 still led the team, and he set a career-high with 87 receptions while producing another 11 touchdowns. While Binns had the biggest catch of the season that year, Gilyard was the No. 1 target by a wide margin. Plus, Binns wouldn’t have had a chance to win the regular season finale against Pittsburgh without a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 68-yard scoring reception from Gilyard earlier in the game. Those two scores sparked the incredible comeback from down 31-10 and were part of a program record 381 all-purpose yards for Gilyard. The kickoff return score against Pitt was Gilyard’s second of the season and part of his career-best 1,281 kickoff return yards (30.5 yards per attempt) that season.
Once again, the honors came rolling in for Gilyard after he was a major reason for UC’s 12-0 regular season and appearance in the Sugar Bowl. He was a first-team All-Big East player once again and got All-American nods from Sports Illustrated and the American Football Coaches Association.
Gilyard did not have the same type of success in the professional ranks as he did in college. He was selected in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams but only managed 78 receiving yards in the NFL before moving on to play in the CFL and Arena Football League. He currently plays for the Massachusetts Pirates of the National Arena League.
Even if pro football has not been as kind to him, Gilyard was a standout at UC and that’s an understatement. He holds a host of program records, including for career receiving yards (3,003) and kickoff return yards (2,657). He is a deserving winner of the Favorite Cincinnati Bearcat Football Player Since 1997 Tournamen, as he provided the spark to the most electric era in program history.