February 7, 2008: “I am here to announce my commitment to the University of Texas ... I’m very excited about this opportunity. I feel very blessed ... It’s been my dream ever since I moved to Austin.”
Garrett Gilbert was the top-ranked quarterback in the state and a senior-to-be for the Lake Travis Cavaliers when he committed to play football for the Texas Longhorns. With the Cavaliers, he won two state championships and rewrote the state’s record books. Gilbert was expected to be the next great Texas quarterback. There was no doubt.
So how did he get here? How Gilbert, the most prolific quarterback in Texas high school history, finds himself in a situation deemed impossible — benched, hurt and on his way out of town — is surreal, even to him.
“I don’t know why it happened, but for whatever reason, it didn’t work out [at Texas],” Gilbert told The Daily Texan. “All my focus is forward. I try not to get disappointed by the past because I feel like I’ve got a great opportunity ahead of me.”
Gilbert’s arrival at Texas was a highly anticipated one and after a two-touchdown performance against Alabama in the national title game two seasons ago, expectations for him rose to astronomical levels. Despite the lack of a productive running game or a reliable offensive line, Longhorn fans’ animosity for Gilbert grew as they witnessed their team go 5-7 in the program’s worst season since 1997.
“The expectations were not too high,” Gilbert said. “At Texas, every year, it’s 10 wins, national championship or bust. I knew that when I came to school here. I knew that [expectations] would be part of it when I came here.”
The last ball Gilbert ever threw for the Longhorns was an incompletion against Brigham Young, which moved his stat line that day to 2-for-8 with two interceptions. As he headed toward the sideline — where he would stay for the remainder of the game — a chorus of boos rained down upon him.
“Did I hear them? Oh yeah, I heard them,” Gilbert said. “It’s a loud stadium. You’re going to hear it. It didn’t bother me or affect me, but you hear them when you’re out there. I try to let it go in one ear and out the other.”
That’s the final time the home crowd saw Gilbert. He made the trip up to UCLA, but, demoted to third-string on the depth chart, didn’t play. A week later, he announced he would get surgery to repair the right shoulder injury he says he suffered against Rice in Texas’ opener. A week after that, Gilbert announced he planned to transfer.
“I decided it was best for me,” Gilbert said. “Maybe in the future, I could look back and say that maybe I could have stayed here. Right now, I’m looking forward.”
It didn’t take long for Gilbert to choose his next destination. Gilbert said he took one look at Southern Methodist University and made up his mind. He said he had previously considered Clemson, where his former high school head coach Chad Morris serves as offensive coordinator. But with sophomore Tajh Boyd firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback, Gilbert, who will have two years of eligibility after sitting out next year, decided against playing for the Tigers and chose instead to play for June Jones in his pass-happy offense.
“I fell in love with SMU,” Gilbert said. “June Jones has brought in a great attitude to the program. He’s gotten them to three straight bowls, so they’re doing very well. They’ve got that attitude where they feel like they should win every game.”
Meanwhile, the timing of Gilbert’s decision to transfer was questioned by some who believed he strategically chose to leave the program in time to claim a medical redshirt. After he announced his intentions to leave the program, message boards blew up, criticizing Gilbert for his poor play, remembering him for his good moments and everything in between. The University Co-op cut No. 7 jersey prices in half, serving as yet another reminder of the demands and expectations Longhorn quarterbacks face. Gilbert made an effort not to read what was being said about him but sometimes couldn’t help it.
“It was frustrating last year,” he said. “I know I’d accidentally read stuff sometimes. I tried not to. I tried to stay away from it.”
Co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, who played quarterback for the Longhorns from 1998-2001, can empathize with Gilbert’s situation.
“Playing quarterback here, it’s an awful lot of responsibility,” Applewhite said. “The best thing is to be naive about the pressure, which I played off pretty well.”
Texas is bowl eligible, a feat that it couldn’t achieve a year ago, and has established a great ground game following a season that saw the Longhorns unsuccessfully attempt to install an effective running game. But with the arrival of freshman tailbacks Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, Texas was able to top 400 yards rushing in consecutive games, providing a luxury Gilbert did not have.
“We kind of had a mid-season transformation [in 2010],” Gilbert said. “[Running the ball] was something that we tried to do, and last year it didn’t work out as well as we wanted it to. This year, they’re doing a great job of running the ball.”
Texas’ passing attack has had its ups and downs since Gilbert’s departure. Case McCoy played well against UCLA, only to be usurped as starting quarterback three games later by David Ash, who struggled last week against Missouri.“It’s easy to be a guy who judges,” Gilbert said. “I’m sure during practice or during the first two games, David’s saying, ‘Oh, I can make that pass.’”
Bryan Harsin, Texas’ co-offensive coordinator, has said something a few times this year that sums up the kind of pressure quarterbacks face, especially those at a high-profile, championship-or-bust program like the one at Texas. Gilbert repeated it.
“As a quarterback, you’re always going to be a guy who gets too much credit and way too much blame,” Gilbert said. “That’s something that I’ve known growing up from the time I played Pop Warner all the way through high school and into college.”
That, unfortunately, was especially true for Garrett Gilbert.