AUSTIN, Texas -- Garrett Gilbert has the humble thing down.
Five plays into the BCS title game, coaches called his number to replace the injured Colt McCoy. The backup freshman quarterback, who had all of 26 college passes to his name, couldn't find his helmet.
|The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Gilbert is taller and has a stronger arm than predecessor Colt McCoy. (US Presswire)|
No, not the Alabama bench, the bench where the Texas defensive players were congregated.
That was bad enough, and it went downhill from there.
Gilbert looked tentative, overwhelmed. Basically, he played like what he was: a freshman who had barely played, thrown into the biggest game of the season -- and his life. At halftime, he had completed one of his 10 passes for minus-4 yards. A simple confidence-building shovel pass near the end of the first half turned into an awkward interception after being bobbled. The gallant Gilbert became road kill as Alabama's Marcell Dareus ran over him on the way to the end zone.
It was the first of Gilbert's five turnovers that night (four of them interceptions). Texas was down 24-6 at half.
"There's not much after 37 years I didn't think I'd seen," Longhorns coach Mack Brown said. "I'm not sure any of us handled it very well. I thought we all were in shock."
The halftime locker room was cauldron of emotion and confusion. Coaches trying to emotionally prop up a team that looked like it had been smacked with a 2x4. Players fixating on McCoy, who, in one last desperate attempt, tried to play catch with his dad in the locker room. Standing seven yards away, Colt couldn't muster a worthy throw because of the pinched nerve in his shoulder.
At that point, it was official. The quarterback king's career was dead. Long live the new guy.
"You never ask for something like that to happen," said Gilbert, who was, and still is, considered The Next One at Texas. "When Colt went down, I didn't know what to think."
Gilbert has had two months to clear his head. It's slowly sinking that the night of Jan. 7 was the best thing that could have happened -- to the quarterback in the short term and maybe Texas in the long term.
"That's right, no doubt," said Garrett's father, Gale, a backup quarterback on five Super Bowl squads. "I think it was a big confidence builder."
Texas formally trotted out McCoy's successor to the media at the end of a spring practice session this week. It was the first time we had spoken to Gilbert since he sat hunched by locker, head down, at the end of the 37-21 loss to Alabama. Back then, we were caught up chronicling the devastating end to McCoy's career, trying to frame Alabama's first national championship in 17 years and making deadline.
What could an understudy say anyway, forced into a Broadway lead in the blink of an eye? Better for others to frame the moment.
BCS title game: Alabama 37, Texas 21
"This is going to be great for you," receiver Jordan Shipley said The Next One privately as they walked off the field. "I am going to enjoy watching you."
That's the takeaway from one of the most bitter losses in Texas history. It's easier to deal with a championship lost because a new quarterback emerged. In the second half, Gilbert found his confidence and his receivers. With six minutes left, Texas was within three, 24-21, and a comeback for the ages was in the works.
Orangebloods choose to remember that, not Gilbert then reverting to raw freshman. He turned it over on Texas' final three possessions.
"Instead of being excited about being in a championship game, he was disappointed we lost," Brown said.
Gilbert was the No. 1 quarterback target of the 'Horns in the 2009 recruiting class, and his second-half line in the BCS title game revealed that maybe a high school star had been reborn. He completed 14 of 30 for 190 yards and two touchdowns against one of the nation's toughest defenses.
If the first half of the Alabama game was a car wreck, then the second half offered hope.
"A lot of people told me to use it as a learning experience and forget about the bad parts," Gilbert said. "Obviously, it's still a tough loss."
The overall lesson learned by Brown was never to be boxed in like that again. As good as Texas and McCoy were last season, fate and Alabama exposed a fatal flaw. Never be in a position to lose based on the health of one player. A couple of significant coaches had hammered that home to Brown long ago -- Vince Dooley, the Georgia legend, and his brother Bill, who won 162 games in 26 years at North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
That's why things will change fairly drastically. As good as the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Gilbert is, he won't be the constant centerpiece in the offense. Texas, 61st in rushing last season, will run the ball effectively no matter what --Brown has promised it. The offense will have more of a pro-style look, there will be players in motion, look for a fullback or H-back to lead block and more tight end.
|Gilbert and running back Tre Newton will be counted on to produce points. (US Presswire)|
No surprise there. One of the nation's football hotbeds has become a breeding ground for spread quarterbacks. The state of Texas led Division I-A in starting quarterbacks last season (22). Texas has helped lead that revolution with native Texan spread guys producing a national championship (Vince Young) and the school's career passing record (McCoy).
"You average  points per game and win 13 games, so what we did was right," Brown said of last season. "But what has happened is, it's harder to find tailbacks than it used to be. We're having trouble finding tight ends. We're having trouble finding fullbacks.
"If we're going to get to the BCS, we're going to play a physical two-back team. We need to go and have some two-back physical running."
Combine a new quarterback, Texas tweaking its offense and the nation's unholy obsession over Tim Tebow going under center, you've got some issues. At least to some.
"It's just different," Gilbert said. "I don't know if there is anything tougher about it."
"He's just a work in progress," receiver James Kirkendoll said. "He's got a lot of work on him ... He's still trying to figure it out. He showed flashes of it in the [championship] game. He's going to learn. We're here to guide him along the way."
In the first public practice of the spring on Tuesday, Gilbert was both raw and brilliant -- kind of like the title game. He threw a troubling interception across the middle to defensive back Christian Scott, but also threw a deep, sideline rocket to Kirkendoll for about 30 yards.
Gilbert is the subject of one of several questions surrounding Texas this spring. Who will he throw to? Shipley is gone. Promising Marquise Goodwin is running track. Who will replace All-American corner Earl Thomas? Who will run it? There hasn't been a go-to back at Texas for a while. There are holdovers like Vondrell McGee, Tre Newton and Fozzy Whittaker, but if you're looking for something new, check out redshirt freshman Chris Whaley, a 6-3, 245-pound brute with speed.
Fortunately, Brown has a good track record at retooling. The quarterback position has moved seamlessly from Major Applewhite to Chris Simms to Young to McCoy. You have to feel good, then, about Gilbert.
He is taller than McCoy, with a stronger arm. Not many kids have a former NFL quarterback as a dad. Texas coaches and fans have had a glimpse, under trying circumstances, of what is to come.
Best of all, for now, Gilbert has the humble thing down.
"Obviously, the expectation level is high and it should be," Gale Gilbert said. "I think he is wired probably to handle that."