March was a chaotic month for Towson defensive lineman Tibo Debaillie. When the university shut down due to COVID-19, Debaillie and his parents had to scramble to get him a flight back to his native Belgium. He was lucky, returning home right before Belgium locked down and international travel became more complicated.
Once he was able to settle in at home, Debaillie had to tackle online classes and stay in football shape. Director of football performance Justin Lima sent the team a series of bodyweight exercises, but Debaillie took it up a notch.
Debaillie did single-leg squats and single-leg Romanian deadlifts with full water jugs. He also did single leg squats with bags of concrete. When he wanted to focus more on cardiovascular endurance, Debaillie went on bike rides that lasted anywhere from two and a half to four hours. He sent Lima videos of all of his workouts, and those videos encapsulated what Debaillie has been in his football career — a player who never stops working.
“I love working out and I love being busy,” Debaillie said, “and now is a perfect time to get better physically and mentally.”
Debaillie was introduced to football by his father, Yvan, who played in Belgium in the 1980s. He started playing football when he was 12 and dreamed of playing college football in the U.S. By 2016, Debaillie was part of a group traveling to the U.S. for recruiting camps with Europe Elite, a program led by former NFL offensive lineman Brandon Collier to help European football players get college scholarships.
That’s how Towson head coach Rob Ambrose first saw Debaillie. After running him through a rigorous workout at the Tigers’ prospect camp, Ambrose was impressed. Though Debaillie was raw, he had a lot of potential and athleticism for someone with his size (6-foot-2, 285 pounds).
“Tibo came to our camp and he was amazing,” Ambrose said. “Obviously, I took a flyer. I watched him do his thing and thought he could play four different positions for us so I thought, ‘Why not?’ And I took a chance.”
College brought a new challenge for Debaillie. He had always been strong, but he had to work to translate that strength into production on the football field. In Belgium, the play is less structured. Defensive linemen didn’t have specific assignments other than to tackle the running back on a run or get after the quarterback on a pass play. At Towson, Debaillie had to learn how to rush the passer and stop the run within the structure of the defense. He had to learn a playbook for the first time, too, but Ambrose doesn’t think he had much trouble with it since Debaillie speaks five languages.
“Everyone’s bigger, stronger, faster,” Debaillie said. “Technique-wise, everyone is a lot better, too. The tempo of the game is a lot higher as well with the no-huddle offense we sometimes face, so I have to get used to that as well.”
In the weight room, Lima worked with Debaillie to convert that explosive strength into success on the field. Lima emphasizes single-leg exercises, since a player’s legs are rarely in a symmetrical stance on the field. That meant a lot of barbell split squats and single-leg lunges. Outside of the weight room, it meant pushing 300- or 400-pound sleds for 4-6 seconds and then resting 30 seconds, simulating a long drive. Lima credited Debaillie for having the right mentality and pushing himself to get the most out of workouts.
“You have to understand I’m only 25 percent of the pie,” Lima said of Debaillie’s preparation. “The physical part’s easy, and a lot of the credit has to go to his position coach, the defensive coordinator and the head coach. They’re teaching a lot of the techniques behind what’s going on. That’s 50 percent of it, and the last 25 percent is on Tibo himself — his mental state that he controls.”
Debaillie played in all 11 games during his true freshman season in 2017, recording a sack against in-state foe Maryland. After his sophomore campaign was cut short due to multiple stingers, Debaillie had a starting role for the Tigers last season, recording 22 tackles in nine games. As a redshirt junior this fall, Ambrose said Debaillie was going to have his best season yet.
“This is his killer year,” Ambrose said, “the one he’s supposed to get to talk about for the rest of his life and one that we get to brag about for the rest of his life. So corona certainly made it challenging on everybody.”
Like many other athletes around the country, Debaillie won’t get the chance to play this fall. The CAA postponed all fall sports July 17, and NCAA president Mark Emmert announced Aug. 13 that all fall sports championships were canceled.
Debaillie is still home in Gistel, Belgium, and will be taking classes online for the fall semester. If circumstances change, Debaillie could be back on campus for the spring. His football future is up in the air as well. If there’s a spring season, Debaillie said he’ll definitely play. If not, he’s not sure he’ll use his fifth year of eligibility next fall, as he’s scheduled to graduate with a degree in physical education this spring.
However, Debaillie is making sure he’s ready for a chance to play again. Ever since coronavirus restrictions were eased in Belgium, Debaillie has been working out every day at a gym owned by one of his best friends. Team meetings haven’t been an issue either, as the Tigers’ 10 a.m. meetings are still just 4 p.m. in Belgium.
It’s just about being ready for the opportunity. According to Lima, those who continue to consistently train will be best positioned for success long term.
“Motivation is kind of like a cup of espresso,” Lima said. “You drink it, you feel really good, and it gives you a lot of energy, but then you just crash and it doesn’t provide long-lasting energy. … But discipline is like a healthy diet — that consistent diet of the right foods and the lean protein, vegetables, drinking clear liquids, eating healthy fats. That diet of discipline is what’s going to give you sustainable energy day in and day out.”
“By having the discipline to show up and train and do the right thing every single day,” he added, “that’s what we’re going to be doing so that way when the time comes, we will be ready.”
Photo Credit: ENP Photography
Originally published Sept. 2, 2020