The 2018 season wasn’t much fun for UTEP’s Derron Gatewood.
It began with tremendous promise, as he earned a spot on the watch list for the Rimington Trophy, presented to the nation’s top center. But before he could play a single down in a game, he tore his ACL and MCL, bringing his senior year to a screeching halt.
A negative experience to be sure, but Gatewood found some positives in it.
“I learned a lot more about the offense,” he said. “I got to really see what was going on and helped break down the defensive films for the players. But the biggest positive I took out of it was that I realized how much I missed playing. My love for the game grew even more from sitting out for so long, as opposed to taking it for granted.”
Now he’s back on the Rimington Trophy list, eager to make up for lost time and on a mission to close out his Miner career on a high note.
“I’m excited to get back out there and have a big senior year,” he said.
Gatewood grew up in an athletic family.
“My mom [Denisa Gatewood] played softball and basketball in high school,” he said. “My dad [Kevin Gatewood] played football and baseball. He went on to Cisco Junior College and Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He won a national championship there.”
So it was only natural that Gatewood would follow in his parents’ footsteps. He first picked up a football when he was about five years old.
“My dad put me in flag football,” he said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I started liking it. And then I loved it, and I never wanted to stop playing.”
Originally a quarterback in flag football, Gatewood moved to the defensive line in third grade as he got bigger and stronger. Then he went back and forth between the defensive line and the offensive line for several years, before playing exclusively on the O-line as a junior and senior in high school.
Gatewood attended Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, made famous by the motion picture “Friday Night Lights.”
“It was awesome playing there,” he said. “I wear my mojo shirt everywhere and everybody is like, ‘Oh, you went to Permian!’ People came from everywhere to see our school.”
Gatewood made the varsity team as a sophomore, at the age of 14. He watched college recruiters come through the program scouting his junior and senior teammates, while he longed to play at the next level.
“I told my dad, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to play college football,’” he said. “I grew up watching the game. It was my dream.”
Gatewood earned a spot on Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Super Team as a senior, and was an honorable mention All-State honoree. He drew interest from Abilene Christian, Angelo State, Arizona State, Navy, Texas Tech and West Texas A&M, but UTEP’s recruiting pitch made the biggest impression.
“UTEP was the only school I made an official visit to,” he said. “I came here and just fell in love with the place.”
The excitement of joining a Division I program was soon replaced by the stark reality that he wasn’t ready to contribute immediately.
“I actually came here as a guard, and the day before camp [then-offensive line coach] Spencer Leftwich called me and said I was getting moved to center,” Gatewood said. “I said ‘Coach, I’ve never snapped in my life.’ He said ‘We’ll teach you.’ I went to camp in Alpine and I struggled my first year. I redshirted on the scout team. I didn’t like it. I was nervous. I felt like I couldn’t do it. The next year, I had Eric Lee in front of me at center. He showed me the ropes and taught me everything. I just started slowly getting better and better at the position.”
Gatewood’s confidence continued to grow, and he was a staple in the starting lineup in 2016 and 2017 prior to getting hurt.
“Every time I went into a game, I got to feel out different teams and how they did things,” he said. “I have a lot of experience under my belt, I’ve seen it all and I’ve gone against a lot of guys.”
Two years ago, he had the added benefit of playing alongside future NFL second round draft pick Will Hernandez.
“Man, was he physical and tough,” he said. “He taught me how to push myself. He would always yell at me in the weight room and say, ‘Go up a weight.’ He taught me different techniques that he used, and basically how to be physical on the field. It worked out perfectly, us playing together. I knew that if something happened and I got beat, he was going to be right there next to me.”
Gatewood is looking to put together a consistent senior season.
“Every game, I’ve got to play my best,” he said. “This is it. This is my last year. This is my last chance. I’ve got 12 games. I’ve got to take it one game at a time, make them count and play to the best of my ability.”
Gatewood received his Kinesiology degree in May, 2018 and is working on his Masters in Leadership Studies this fall. And while he dreams of following his former teammate Hernandez to the NFL, he fully plans to complete that degree.
“My motto has always been that when you start something, you’ve got to finish it,” he said.
As he works to make all his dreams come true, Gatewood will continue to lean on his wife, Rylee Jones, for support.
“She was actually my high school sweetheart,” he said. “I was getting ready to go to UTEP, and she was going to Texas Tech for PT school. That was her dream. Of course we didn’t want to be separated, so she talked to [UTEP Director of Sports Medicine] Dawn Hearn and she got a scholarship to be an athletic trainer here. So we’ve been together at UTEP. I proposed to her on Christmas Eve  and we got married in February.”
Gatewood found it difficult to manage family life, football and school when he first arrived at UTEP, but he has a handle on it now.
“It’s all about being committed and knowing you’ve got to get things done,” he said. “The first two years, I was in the MAC [Miner Athlete Academic Center] so they helped with tutoring and keeping me on track. And after that, Rylee helped me. We were in the same major, so we kind of had the same classes. If I was taking classes in the fall, she may have taken those classes already.”
So this is it, Gatewood’s final go-round in the classroom and on the field, and he’s excited about the Miners’ prospects on the cusp of the 2019 season.
“I just want us to have a winning season, and anything that happens from there is going to be great,” he said. “I’ve told all the guys, ‘I want to go to a bowl game.’ I got to experience it my first year. I didn’t play – I redshirted – but it was the greatest feeling ever just being there.
“We’ve got to take it one game at a time. That’s our thing, the 1-0 [concept]. I feel like this has to be my best year, and I just want to play to the best of my ability and give it my all for 12 games.”