In the 2009 BCS title game, Garrett Gilbert quickly went from backup to starter. Texas quarterback Colt McCoy had been sidelined by an injured shoulder after just five plays, and Gilbert, a former schoolboy prodigy from Austin, came on for the Longhorns to face the Alabama defense. Few true freshman in history have faced such high stakes in the first significant action of their collegiate career.
The Crimson Tide harassed Gilbert into four interceptions and held him to 15-of-40 passing, but he nevertheless led a fourth-quarter comeback by throwing for a pair of touchdowns. With a little more than three minutes remaining, Texas had the ball trailing 24-21. Gilbert stood at the line of scrimmage, 93 yards from becoming a Longhorns legend. For a fleeting moment, there was hope.
An Alabama holding penalty moved the ball up to the Texas 17-yard line, but as Gilbert dropped back to pass on the next play, linebacker Eryk Anders crushed the quarterback from the blindside, forcing a fumble that the Crimson Tide recovered at the three. Alabama went on to cruise to a closer-than-it-appeared 37-21 win. That star-crossed night was a harbinger of the bad luck that was to befall Gilbert in the coming years, as injuries and interceptions derailed his time at Texas. He became the starter after he transferred to SMU in 2012, but he performed unevenly last season.
Just as he did on that starry night in Pasadena, however, Gilbert has persevered. Entering 2013, he has a final chance to author an improbable comeback and rewrite his story's ending.
His quest begins tonight, as the Mustangs open with a home game against Texas Tech. After a season spent adjusting to coach June Jones' run-and-shoot system, Gilbert has at last settled into his role as SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert, not former Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert.
"It seems like almost my first time in college with a full offseason and a full spring," he said. "So I feel very comfortable where we're at."
This is Gilbert's fifth year of college --he was awarded a medical redshirt in 2011 after he suffered an early-season shoulder injury -- the last in which he will try to live up to his legend. He passed for a state-record 12,534 yards at Austin's Lake Travis High, and ranked second in Rivals.com's 2009 pro-style quarterback ratings, behind Matt Barkley and ahead of Aaron Murray.
"He was never going to meet the expectations," said Gale Gilbert, Garrett's father and a former NFL backup quarterback. "He would have had to [win] three national titles to live up to the hype. That obviously wasn't going to happen."
Gilbert grew up obsessed with the Longhorns, and, with the help of family friends, started hanging out at the team's practice facility well before he was even in junior high. All he ever wanted to do was play for Texas. And though he realized that dream, the way his Longhorns career played out left him feeling unfulfilled.
Gilbert threw 17 interceptions and just 10 touchdowns in 12 games as a sophomore starter. The criticism came from everywhere, and it got so bad that Gale canceled his subscription to the local paper.
At season's end, offensive coordinator Greg Davis resigned. It marked the beginning of a tailspin from which coach Mack Brown's program has yet to emerge. Garrett didn't stick around to watch the free fall. He injured his shoulder during the second game of his junior season, a narrow win over BYU, and decided to transfer a few months later.
Gale and Kim Gilbert had left the BYU game early, overwhelmed by the vitriol directed at their son. "My wife and I are extremely proud," Gale said. "I couldn't imagine going through that."
Garrett's untapped potential became Exhibit A for those who complained that Texas was underachieving. Gale even broached the subject of quitting football entirely with his son.
"We told him, if you don't want to play again, finish up at UT," Gale said. "He was beyond adamant: 'I love the game and I want to play again.'"
Garrett seriously considered transferring to only two schools: South Carolina and SMU. His visit with Mustangs coach Jones made the choice easy.
Gilbert crammed 27 units into his spring semester at Texas last year to graduate with a degree in sports management. That allowed him to be eligible at SMU immediately, but it did nothing to help him feel comfortable with the run-and-shoot. Last season, he threw 15 interceptions, 13 of which came in the first seven weeks. The low point came when he threw five picks in a 24-16 loss to TCU on Sept. 29.
Gale credits Jones and offensive coordinator Dan Morrison for sticking with his son, who was still struggling with his experience at Texas.
"I don't think they knew the depth of his confidence and how much everything had been shook," Gale said. "Once they started dealing with that and realizing it, things turned."
Garrett went the final five weeks of the regular season without throwing an interception. He threw two picks against Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl, but they proved a footnote to SMU's 43-10 blowout victory.
This fall, coming off a full offseason spent mastering Jones's scheme -- which features few plays but many different route options -- Gilbert said he's much more comfortable. Jones said Gilbert could end up calling 35 percent of the plays at the line, something quarterbacks Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan did under Jones at Hawaii.
"I'm not out there guessing what my receivers are going to do," Gilbert said, "I'm out there fine tuning."
After losing star tailback Zach Line to the NFL, the Mustangs will be even more focused on the passing game in 2013. Jones is excited about the prospects of a seasoned Gilbert and an improved offensive supporting cast.
"We weren't as good around him last year as I thought we needed to be," Jones said. "I think we're a lot better around him, skill wise, receiver wise, all of those things. I think that'll show up, as it did in the last two or three games last year."
The final season of Gilbert's career begins on Friday night. After four years spent chasing his own legend, SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert has finally found a comfortable distance from former Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert. He's not looking back.
"We're all looking ahead," Gilbert said, "and we have a chance to do something special this year."