A Loaded Deck

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Gilbert expected to be Texas' ace

Junior quarterback Garrett Gilbert looks down field to make a pass during the Spring Game. Gilbert, who started all last season, has been fighting to keep his starting role this offseason. (Daily Texan file photo)

Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar | Daily Texan Staff

The quarterback position, most notably incumbent Garrett Gilbert, is the biggest mystery hovering above the Longhorns’ fast-approaching 2011 season.

The Texas coaching staff has yet to name a starting quarterback and it looks as if the four-man race will go down to the wire. Longhorn fans might not know who their team’s quarterback is until the season-opener against Rice on Sept. 3.

In two short years, Gilbert has risen to the top of the college football world and has also seen what it’s like at the bottom. Simply put, the former Gatorade National Prep Player of the Year has experienced the highs and lows that come with being the Longhorns’ starting quarterback.

The high started nearly 20 months ago, back in January of 2010, midway through the fourth quarter of the 2010 BCS National Championship game against Alabama.

Gilbert, thrust into the game as a freshman to replace the injured Colt McCoy after five plays, had just pulled the Longhorns within 3 points by orchestrating a 9-play, 65-yard drive capped by a 28-yard TD pass to Jordan Shipley. Gilbert’s second TD pass of the game brought the Texas faithful at the Rose Bowl to life.

For a moment, it looked as if a new era at quarterback was about to take flight for the Longhorns.

From that point on, however, it’s been a bumpy ride for Gilbert and Texas, to say the least. His final five snaps of the game included a pair of interceptions, an incompletion and a lost fumble on a sack.

Gilbert’s — and the Longhorns’ — 2010 season followed a similar pattern. A 3-0 start to the year preceded a 2-7 finish, with Gilbert tossing seven touchdowns against 14 picks over the final nine games.

Now, he finds himself fighting for a job.

As co-offensive coordinators Major Applewhite and Bryan Harsin continue their search for a starter, they give no special treatment to the local kid who nearly rescued Texas in Pasadena that fateful January evening.

“I think one of the worst things you can do is let someone fall into a little bit of complacency or entitlement,” Applewhite said. “All of them have to fight for their lives and fight for their jobs.”

Gilbert is 10th on the Longhorns’ career list with 3,054 yards passing and his 2,744 yards through the air in 2010 was the seventh highest mark for a single season in Texas history. He played against the best team the SEC has to offer on the biggest stage in college athletics and navigated through the Big 12. Still, Gilbert has yet to separate himself from the rest of the pack.

“I think Garrett’s done a great job, I do,” Harsin said. “I think he’s competed as well any of those [other] guys. Everybody else: Case [McCoy], Connor [Wood], David Ash, they’ve all continued to get better and better and they continue to do that as a group and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in.”

Gilbert has shown the ability to be an accurate passer at times, completing 59 percent of his attempts in 2010. On the other hand, he’s had a tendency to turn the ball over.

An area Gilbert excelled in last season, though, was his knack for turning a broken play into positive yardage — usually with his feet. He was second on the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns with 380 yards and five TDs on the ground.

“Ad-libbing at that position is important,” Applewhite said. “It’s been something that we’ve had at the quarterback position for a while here over the last few years, guys that can ad-lib well and it’s still a requirement at that position.”

The one thing holding Gilbert back, however, is giveaways. Throughout the offseason, the coaching staff has worked on restoring confidence to the state’s all-time leader in passing yards (12,540 at Lake Travis).

“The first thing you have to do is help him understand that there’s 10 other guys on the field,” Applewhite said. “Not everything is on you, there’s other guys that need to do their job.”

With the Longhorns playing from behind in the majority of their games in 2010, the offense leaned on Gilbert to constantly throw the ball, which lead to interceptions, including the five he threw against Kansas State during a 39-14 loss.

“Some of the mistakes that he may have made last year during the season were compounded because of the situations we found ourselves in,” Applewhite said. “We’re having to throw the ball a whole bunch because we’re behind and now he’s thrust into a position where the [defense] is dropping eight, dropping nine.

“So explaining those situations to him that, ‘Hey, you were put in some really tough spots last year, having to come back against these teams you were throwing the ball more than we wanted you to.’ “

If and when the coaches decide to name Gilbert as the starting quarterback, they will be careful to put him in the best situation to succeed — something that was lacking a season ago. A strong running game will certainly go along way towards taking the pressure off the quarterback — whoever that might be.

“You try to explain to him that we’re not going to put as much on your plate from the standpoint of putting you behind the eight ball as much,” Applewhite said. “This is going to be a little more team-oriented, not as much quarterback driven as it was with Colt or with Vince [Young].”

So are the coaches concerned they haven’t identified a starter?

“You can’t worry about that,” said head coach Mack Brown. “What you do is, make a decision on what is best for the team to win, period. Nothing else is important.”

Looks like it’s just another chapter in the up-and-down world of Gilbert.