Thu Mar 11 12:07pm EST
Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order. Today: Texas sophomore Garrett Gilbert.
• Typecasting. Texas wasn't about to let just anyone replace the winningest starting QB in college history. The Longhorns wanted a precise, strong-armed field general in the Colt McCoy mold, and they found it in five-star prospect Gilbert. He led his high-school team to back-to-back state titles in 2007 and '08 and broke Graham Harrell's state record for career yardage by two yards. It looked like Gilbert was being set up for a near-perfect situation: Sign with Texas, learn from McCoy as a true freshman while getting some garbage-time reps toward the end of the Longhorns' blowout victories, then settle in for three years as the undisputed starter.
But Gilbert's path to the limelight didn't quite follow that script. He averaged only two passing attempts per game in the regular season as the 'Horns let several opponents hang around much longer than expected. And when he finally got to see meaningful action, it was on the season's biggest stage in the BCS National Championship Game after McCoy suffered a shoulder injury on the Longhorns' fifth play from scrimmage. Gilbert took every snap from there on out, and his lackluster line (15-of-40 for 186 yards, two touchdowns, four picks) doesn't adequately portray the heroics he exhibited in bringing the 'Horns back within three points in the fourth quarter against the nation's No. 2 defense.
With that grueling trial by fire behind him, the keys to the Texas offense are now Gilbert's alone. Sounds weird to say, but "it only gets easier from here, kid" might actually be a true statement in this case. Filling the shoes of one of the most accurate passers in recent memory, of course, will require Gilbert to improve that 45.5-percent completion rate, but that task will almost certainly be a lot easier without Nick Saban staring him down from the opposite sideline.
• At his best ... Against Alabama's top-10 pass defense, Gilbert completed touchdown strikes of 28 and 44 yards (complemented by a 39-yard completion to Marquise Goodwin on the Longhorns' first drive of the second half), so there's evidence that Gilbert may actually be better with the long ball than his predecessor. He won't be able to throw any of them to Jordan Shipley this season, of course, but everyone south of Shipley on the Longhorns' 2009 receiving stats list returns, including rising junior Malcolm Williams -- a big, blazingly quick target who already has two years of solid experience under his belt -- and seniors James Kirkendoll and John Chiles.
It's worth noting, too, that Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis didn't revert to a hyperconservative game plan just because McCoy had been knocked out of the game. Davis did establish a fairly predictable pattern over the Longhorns' first few possessions, but he then opened up the playbook to include some play-action looks and deep passes, and Gilbert got comfortable with it surprisingly quickly: After a first half in which Gilbert completed two passes to Alabama's secondary and only one to his own receivers, he started the second half 14-of-26 with two long TDs, generally reading the defense well and evading Alabama's QB pressure right up until the Eryk Anders sack that forced a fumble and marked the beginning of the end for the Longhorns' chances. If the national championship game is an indication of how well Gilbert has already absorbed the playbook, the leadership void left by McCoy's graduation may be much briefer than anyone anticipated.
• At his worst ... One of the excuses made for Gilbert's struggles in Pasadena -- and a valid one, if you saw the game -- is that the offensive line had an uncharacteristically poor night, missing numerous blocks and putting the offense in deep holes due to penalties. That may well be, but it's a problem that's unlikely to get magically solved in 2010: Linemen Chris Hall, Charlie Tanner, and Adam Ulatoski are graduating, meaning the Longhorn front will go from one of the Big 12's most experienced to one of its biggest question marks in the span of a single offseason. If the line can't get stabilized this summer -- particularly at the left-tackle position, which at this point looks to be filled either by one of Mack Brown's '09 recruits or by converting RT Kyle Hix -- then Gilbert will spend much of 2010 looking less like the field general who gained confidence in the second half of the title game and more like the true freshman who spent most of his time looking helpless in the first.
He'll also need a lot more help from the running game, which was supposed to bounce back last season from a frustrating 2008; instead, the top four running backs totaled just 1,399 yards and, other than Tre' Newton, were little more than afterthoughts in the national-title game. Gilbert showed surprising mobility for his size as a high-school QB, but running is a burden his coaches would just as soon not place on him in his first campaign as the starter. If he ends up with as many carries as Colt McCoy had over the last couple seasons, it's safe to say something didn't quite go according to plan.
• What to expect in '10. For several seasons now we've gotten accustomed to the concept of the Big 12 South as a hotbed of sizzling passing attacks; things are going to look quite a bit different in 2010. Of the division's top four finishers in 2009, three will be breaking in new starting quarterbacks this year, and the fourth, Texas Tech, has undergone a coaching change that nobody seriously believes the beloved "Air Raid" passing attack will survive intact. (Your terrifying thought for the day: Baylor and Texas A&M are now the South Division's standard-bearers in terms of proven experience under center.)
So with all that in mind, Texas isn't in nearly as bad a position as they ought to be for a team that's waving goodbye to the NCAA's all-time career wins record-holder. Gilbert arguably has the most raw talent of the division's three new starting signal-callers, and one of the more dangerous receiving corps to boot. What he doesn't have, at the moment, is confidence in his blind-side protection or a dominant running game, and one of those things is going to have to change for Gilbert to fulfill the promise he exhibited in the stirring comeback attempt against the Crimson Tide. If at least one of them does get resolved, however, then with the Big 12 South's defenses also in a bit of a state of flux, Longhorn fans can start cranking up their optimism that Gilbert might be the man to lead them back to the conference-title game and a BCS berth.
Matt Hinton is on vacation this week. Inform Doug Gillett what a poor substitute he is at dougie_doodle-at-yahoo.