Commentary

Horns confident in Gilbert's ability

Originally Published: March 4, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

AUSTIN, Texas -- So Texas sophomore quarterback Garrett Gilbert believes that one of his goals for this spring is "to earn the trust and the respect of my teammates."

What's the matter with those guys? Is Gilbert playing with a locker room full of Simon Cowells? After Gilbert's performance as Colt McCoy's stand-in during the BCS National Championship Game, what else do the Longhorns need to see?

Gilbert made believers of Texas fans and the rest of the nation in the Longhorns' 37-21 loss to Alabama. Going into the BCS National Championship Game, Gilbert had played only in mop-up time. But on the Longhorns' fifth offensive play, McCoy suffered a nerve injury in his throwing shoulder that knocked him out of the game.

"There's not much after 37 years I didn't think I'd seen," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "This one, in a national championship, I hadn't seen. If someone had asked me, 'How did you feel before the game?' I wouldn't have said, 'Well, I feel we're in great shape unless Colt goes down.' That's just not what you do."

[+] EnlargeGarrett Gilbert
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonGarrett Gilbert was forced to step out of Colt McCoy's shadow in the BCS title game.

Gilbert got the call to go into the game. He turned around and sprinted back to the bench to get his helmet. He couldn't find it. Gilbert looked around. He had sprinted to the bench of the Longhorns' defense. Oops.

Never have the cold, hard facts in the box score been more misleading. They say that Gilbert completed 15 of 40 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns with four interceptions. That's a passing efficiency rating of 73.06, a number that coaches find hazardous to their employment health.

Yet anyone who watched Gilbert rebound from a miserable first half to bring the Longhorns to within a field goal of the Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter should have few doubts that the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Gilbert will be able to handle the burden of replacing McCoy, the quarterback with the most Football Bowl Subdivision wins in history. McCoy has no doubts.

"He came in as a true freshman and backed me up," McCoy said. "They moved John Chiles to receiver, and he beat out Sherrod [Harris]. That shows his competitiveness.

"He's just football-smart. … He would watch film with me every day. We would go through the game plan together. He was always ready in case something happened. Yeah, he had five turnovers in the bowl game. That's the national championship. Had it been Texas A&M or something, it would have been a whole lot different."

Wide receiver James Kirkendoll sounded like a senior who needed a little more proof.

"Everybody knows he brings a lot to the table," Kirkendoll said. "He's got a lot to work on. That's what spring is for. … It definitely gives him a lot of confidence playing in a big game like that. It gives us a lot of confidence as an offense. We've seen what he can do. He just has to get everyone on the same page and develop trust with everyone, not just the coaches."

Offensive coordinator Greg Davis, in 12 seasons at Texas, has developed three different quarterbacks (Major Applewhite, Vince Young, McCoy) into the Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year. Davis prepared McCoy to start as a redshirt freshman in 2006.

"When Vince left, you know, 'The world has come to an end. You're going to have to start a young quarterback.' Blah blah blah," Davis said. "We felt really good about Colt, even though he was battling Jevan Snead for the job. We felt good."

Davis paused.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Gilbert
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezTwo second-half TD passes in the title game gave Garrett Gilbert some confidence.

"I don't know that I don't feel better now," he said, referring to Gilbert, "and probably because of that ballgame."

At halftime, Gilbert had thrown 10 passes, completing one for a 4-yard loss. Two went to the defense, including that shuffle pass that Crimson Tide defensive lineman Marcell Dareus returned 28 yards for a touchdown with three seconds left in the first half.

"After all these years," said Davis, who has been coaching college quarterbacks since 1978, "sometimes you can get the sense over the headset, just by the way they are answering questions and just by the way they are talking to you, that they are comfortable, that they know what's happening. Even in the first half, I didn't get any sense on my headset that there was a panic.

"… And then it began to show," Davis said. "In the first half I felt it, but I could not point to anything. In the second half, I began to see it."

Take the 44-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Shipley late in the third quarter, the play that produced a sigh of relief from Midland to Tyler. Gilbert came off the field, got on the phone and told Davis that the Crimson Tide had been in man coverage, and that when the free safety committed to another receiver, Gilbert went straight to Shipley.

"That first touchdown pass to Jordan was a big relief," Gilbert said. "I think, just slowly, we were able to get into a rhythm."

Davis said, "His answers as the game went on were exactly what I was seeing from upstairs. I had a good feeling he was seeing the right things. He was putting his eyes in the right place."

Davis has seen that quality in Gilbert before. He noticed it when Gilbert, then a budding seventh-grader, attended Brown's summer football camp.

"So many of 'em at 12, they want to know, 'When are we going to throw bombs?' and 'Am I going to get a chance to meet the starting quarterback?'" Davis said. "But he was really paying attention. He's 12. Their ability to sit and listen is really short. He was trying to take what was being said and use it."

When camp ended, Davis told Gilbert's father that if Garrett continued to grow and to enjoy the game, he would be a Division I quarterback.

"You can't tell me that," Gale Gilbert said.

Garrett's father spent eight years in the NFL, largely as a backup quarterback and trivia answer. He remains the only player to play on five consecutive Super Bowl losers (Buffalo Bills from 1991 to '94, San Diego Chargers in 1995). Gale coached Garrett on a Pop Warner team in fourth grade. Gale would have preferred that Garrett, at that age, play flag football instead of tackle. In Texas, however, such thoughts are grounds for deportation.

"He could always throw. He was always really accurate," Gale said of his son. "He's got a feel for the game. He sees the field way better than I ever did."

[+] EnlargeGarrett Gilbert
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonTexas plans not to put all the pressure on Garrett Gilbert's arm in 2010.

Gale is also the last coach for whom Garrett took a snap under center -- until this spring. Brown said that McCoy's injury reminded him of a lesson he learned long ago from Bill and Vince Dooley, the coaching brothers who between them earned 362 victories in 51 seasons.

They told Brown, he said, "You'd rather never have a team where the performance or health of one player can determine whether you win or lose."

With that experience in mind, the focus of spring practice will be to rediscover a more traditional running game. Brown wants two running backs. He wants better balance. That means Gilbert is under center.

"I don't know that there's something tougher about it," Gilbert said. "It's just a little bit different. Coach Davis has done a great job making the transition easy. We've been working on it every day."

Gilbert also has changed his jersey number from No. 3 to No. 7. Any quarterback would rather have a touchdown than a field goal. Gilbert's motivation is to mimic his favorite quarterback who wore No. 7. Gale wore the jersey during his four seasons with the Bills.

But he's not the quarterback Garrett had in mind.

"He said, 'Elway was my hero,' Davis said.

"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' In the Stanford-Cal game, band on the field, Elway was the quarterback for Stanford. His dad was the quarterback at Cal."

"Listen," Gale Gilbert said, "I had to accept that pretty early in life, when he said that his favorite team was the Broncos and he liked that No. 7."

Even then, Garrett Gilbert knew how to watch film.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com