Quarterbacks emerge from the fire
Every backup quarterback in college football wants to play. Hungers to play. Daydreams of the moment when he runs on the field, steps coolly into the huddle and orchestrates something heroic.
The freshmen backup quarterbacks at Oklahoma and Texas, respectively, were minding their own business, watching superstars Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy do their thing. Both Bradford and McCoy went down with arm injuries. Coaches of teams ranked No. 3 and No. 2 in the nation at the time looked at wide-eyed youngsters and said "You're in."
Ready or not, it was time to perform in situations so pressure-filled that it was unfair to send them out there wearing white pants.
Jones had his moment in front of 75,000 people in the Sooners' nationally televised season opener. Gilbert merely had his in the BCS National Championship Game. Neither will ever forget it.
"It didn't really register in my head I was going to play," Jones said. "After a couple seconds I realized, 'Man, I'm about to play in a college football game.'"
"I had to run through the defensive meeting [on the sideline] to find my helmet," Gilbert said with a sheepish smile. "We had to call timeout first. My head was probably spinning about then. It was kind of a whirlwind."
Jones' emergency playing time was about as stressful as a spa treatment compared to Gilbert's.
Bradford was injured on the final play from scrimmage of the first half against BYU. Oklahoma kicked a field goal, went to the locker room, examined the defending Heisman Trophy winner and then told Jones 'Welcome to college football.' After halftime, the redshirt freshman took his first snap in a real game since playing for Artesia, N.M., High School in 2007.
"I was a little nervous," Jones said, "but felt like I was pretty prepared."
Neither Gilbert nor anyone else in Texas was prepared for his introduction to the spotlight. On the Longhorns' fifth offensive play of the title game against Alabama, McCoy was drilled by Marcell Dareus in the right shoulder on a run. The winningest quarterback in FBS history sprinted to the sideline with what was diagnosed as a nerve injury.
He never returned. It was up to Gilbert -- who had thrown 26 stress-free college passes up to that point -- to take on a man-eating Alabama defense and win the national title.
In the Rose Bowl stands, his father, former career NFL backup quarterback Gale Gilbert, was fairly cool. His mother was not.
"He will not," Texas coach Mack Brown said, "have more pressure than he did in that moment."
Meaning ever. In Gilbert's career.
After enduring an 8-5 bummer, Oklahoma would trade the Sooner Schooner for a chance to replay the 2009 season with Bradford fully healthy. And Texas would trade Bevo for the chance to face Alabama again with McCoy able to play.
But the silver lining is that the two Big 12 South archrivals enter 2010 headed by quarterbacks who each endured a baptism by fire that helped them grow up in a hurry.
Jones could not save that BYU game for the Sooners. But he played nearly all season in Bradford's absence, throwing for more than 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns. Other than a five-interception debacle against Nebraska's ravenous defense, he played very well in a tough spot.
Everyone expects more than that in 2010.
"He was a totally different person on the field in the spring from all that experience a year ago, and I'm sure he will continue to grow," Stoops said.
Nobody expects more from Jones than Jones.
"I don't want to be just a mediocre player," he said. "That's not why I've worked this hard and God gave me all these great gifts. I didn't want to go 8-5 and have a mediocre year. At Oklahoma, we want to win championships."
The team once again looming as the Sooners' biggest impediment to a Big 12 South championship is Texas. If the Longhorns are to continue their remarkable reversal of fortune in recent years against Oklahoma, Gilbert will have to play up to his considerable potential.
After being rattled early against Alabama, Gilbert played like the five-star recruit he was. He completed 9 of 13 passes in one stretch as the Longhorns rallied from a 24-6 deficit to 24-21, in position to pull off one of the great upsets in college football history. That's when Alabama ratcheted up the pressure on Gilbert, who finished the game with four interceptions and a fumble.
"I asked him after the game, 'You OK?'" Brown recalled. "He said, 'Yeah. I turned the ball over too much.' Which is what you want him to say."
Texas is so confident that Gilbert has all the right answers that it took him to Big 12 media days last month. He was the youngest of the 38 players to attend.
Gilbert handled it calmly and comfortably. Given the pressure he and Landry Jones endured as emergency backups to superstars in 2009, that shouldn't come as a surprise.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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