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Texas lost title game, but found quarterback in Garrett Gilbert

AUSTIN, Texas -- Greg Davis has spent 33 years of his 37-year coaching life working from the press box. Since he can't look his quarterbacks in the eyes, the Texas offensive coordinator has fine-tuned his ears to detect every nuance in his quarterback's inflection when the signal-caller's voice comes tumbling through Davis' headset after each offensive series. Davis can hear confident. He can hear scared.

That night in Pasadena, Davis would have understood a little fear. It was the national championship game, for goodness sakes. The freshman who spent the season behind the living legend certainly didn't expect to play any significant snaps against an Alabama defense known for gobbling up inexperienced quarterbacks. But Davis didn't hear scared when Garrett Gilbert's barely post-pubescent voice crawled into his ear.

In all those years as the eye in the sky, Davis also has picked up another trick. If he needs to diagnose what went wrong when he called Gun-Right-Jack-Scat-814-Choice-Go, Davis knows better than to ask the quarterback if the safety moved to centerfield. The kid will always answer "Yes." Instead, Davis asks a simpler question. "What did you see?"

Well, Garrett, what did you see?

After a play in which Gilbert overthrew an open Jordan Shipley: "Coach, I knew they were in cover-one. I knew we were going to have a shot. I just missed it."

After a 44-yard touchdown to Shipley in the third quarter: "Cross blitz, coach. Free safety hung on X."

After a fourth-quarter play in which Shipley and Gilbert sight-adjusted to an Alabama blitz and connected for a 28-yard touchdown: "I knew I was hot to the left. I had to get it up quickly."

That score put Texas, playing behind a quarterback who had arrived on campus only six months earlier, within a field goal of the Crimson Tide. Alabama had knocked out Colt McCoy, but the Tide hadn't knocked out the Longhorns thanks to their strapping young backup. Gilbert had struggled early -- coach Mack Brown had to burn a timeout immediately after McCoy's shoulder injury because Gilbert couldn't find his helmet -- but he had settled, and when Texas got the ball back on its own seven-yard line with three minutes, 14 seconds remaining, Gilbert knew he could lead the Longhorns to a national title.

Then Alabama linebacker Eryk Anders appeared out of thin air and hammered Gilbert. The ball squirted free. Alabama's Courtney Upshaw recovered. The dream died.

Gilbert probably should have been pleased with his performance. Entering the BCS title game, he had thrown 26 passes on the season -- all in garbage time. He hadn't played a significant down all season, but still nearly took his team to a national title. Instead, Gilbert blamed himself for the fumble and the four interceptions he threw. If he hadn't turned the ball over, he told Brown after the game, a Longhorn would be cradling a crystal football. That moment told Brown all he needed to know about the player who will take over the Texas offense this season.

"He may be back on that stage, but he'll never be on a bigger stage than that one," Brown said. "He handled it with a lot of composure and was disappointed that he didn't win. I think that's who he is."

Unlike other quarterbacks who will take over high-powered offenses this season, Gilbert isn't a mystery. His character-revealing turn in the title game didn't end with a win, but it did give the Longhorns an idea of what kind of leader will assume command of their offense.

Gilbert is the anti-Colt. McCoy came to Austin from tiny Tuscola, Texas, weighing 175 pounds. After a stellar career against small-school competition, McCoy had to prove he could play against elite defenders. He did that, earning the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2006 and winning an FBS-record 45 games as the starter.

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Gilbert succeeded former Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing at Austin's Lake Travis High and led the Cavaliers to a 39-4 record and two state titles in three years as a starter. In 2008, he won the Gatorade national Player of the Year award and finished his high school career as the alltime leading passer (12,540 yards) in a state that breeds quarterbacks as well as it smokes beef brisket.

Gilbert enters Texas with a pedigree more similar to that of Chris Simms, the prototypical pro-style slinger who most in Austin feel never lived up to his potential. Unlike McCoy in 2006, Gilbert will take his first snap against Rice next weekend under the weight of Simmsesque expectations. "The expectation of Colt grew while he was here," Brown said. "The expectation of Garrett is here, and it's here immediately."

That doesn't bother Gilbert, who has lived in Austin since age 6 and who understands the demands placed upon the Texas quarterback. "The expectations are always going to be through the roof," Gilbert said. "I'm happy about that. I don't want to be at a place where the expectations are low."

After coaching Gilbert for more than a year, Brown believes Gilbert can handle the pressure. "He's got a great presence about him," Brown said. "When he walks in a room, everybody knows he's in the room. He's definitely got the quarterback thing."

Gilbert comes by that honestly. His father, Gale, played quarterback at Cal -- he beat Garrett's idol, John Elway, in the famous Cal-Stanford band game in 1982 -- and played eight seasons in the NFL. During a family trip one summer when Garrett was in high school, Gale even tried to convince Garrett to check out Berkeley, but Gilbert wanted nothing to do with any school other than Texas. "He had zero interest," Gale said. "If Texas offered, that was what he was doing."

As a pro, the elder Gilbert is best known for being the backup quarterback on the losing team in four Super Bowls (thrice with Buffalo and once with San Diego). So, as his son prepared last December to back up McCoy on college football's biggest stage, Gale offered the three-word nugget of advice he lived by as an NFL backup.

You never know.

Even after Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus smashed McCoy, turning McCoy's throwing arm to jelly, Gilbert didn't know. Everyone in the stadium, including Gilbert, assumed McCoy would be back in a few minutes. The little guy had been pulverized so many times in his career, but he almost always came back. When Gilbert took over the Texas huddle on the Alabama 11-yard line, he had no idea he was taking over for good.

"Maybe he lost feeling in his arm," Gilbert remembered thinking. "He'll get it back. Let's get us into the end zone, then let Colt take it back."

Texas settled for a field goal on that first possession. More plays passed. McCoy still wasn't ready. By then, Gale's words had to be echoing in Gilbert's head. You never know. As the second quarter began, the younger Gilbert shifted his focus. He wasn't a caretaker anymore. "I've got to take these guys in," he remembered thinking, "because Colt might not be coming back."

With the defense playing well, Texas coaches called plays from a limited menu to protect Gilbert. Down 11 late in the first half, Davis chose one of the safest plays he could: a shovel pass. Dareus, the same player who hammered McCoy, plucked the ball from the air and ran it back for a touchdown. "Other than a draw play, that's the most conservative play we can call with 15 seconds left to try to get a field goal," Brown said. "Even that went wrong."

At halftime, the team's medical staff confirmed what Gilbert and the coaches had already guessed. McCoy wouldn't be back. In the locker room, Brown faced Gilbert. The training wheels would come off in the second half. "We're going to go play," Brown said. "We're going to start you slow here in the third quarter. We're going to get you comfortable, but you're going to have to play."

In the stands, Kim Gilbert saw her oldest son playing, but it didn't seem real. With so much swirling around him, he seemed as calm as the kid who tossed those 138 touchdown passes at Lake Travis. "I wouldn't be the same in the same situation," Kim Gilbert said. "I don't know how he does it. He just gets into a zone and manages to stay calm."

That calm helped Gilbert in Pasadena, but he had to shed some if it this offseason to show his teammates he could lead. Gilbert isn't as nakedly emotional as McCoy. He just isn't wired that way. "You don't have to be a rah-rah guy," Gale Gilbert said. "You can lead in other ways." Sometimes, though, it takes a little rah-rah to rally the troops.

One day during the Longhorns' summer seven-on-seven drills, cornerback Aaron Williams hit Gilbert with a stream of trash-talk. Before, Gilbert had just turned and walked away. This time, he didn't. He fired right back at Williams. No one seems to remember exactly what Gilbert said, but his offensive -- and defensive -- teammates got the message. This is Gilbert's team.

That doesn't mean Brown wants Gilbert trying to win games by himself. McCoy's injury, as well as the scare the Longhorns received from Nebraska in the Big 12 title game, taught Brown that he had placed too much of the responsibility for his team's success in McCoy's hands. Brown realized he had ignored the advice given to him years earlier by former North Carolina coach Bill Dooley.

"Don't ever let the health or the individual performance of one player determine whether you're going to win or lose the game," Brown remembered Dooley saying.

So Brown and Davis massaged the offense. They added more downhill runs from under center, which should open up more play-action opportunities for Gilbert and keep fire-breathing blitzers at bay. They have demanded more from their line and their backs, who no longer can rely on McCoy to bail them out with his fleet feet. They have challenged a receiving corps that must find a way to replace Shipley's production.

While Brown and Davis love Gilbert's arm, they don't want him to feel he has to carry the entire offense. "I've got a lot of playmakers around me," Gilbert said. "The goal is just to get it to them and let them do what they do best."

It's up to Gilbert to deliver. Given all the attention he's received, it's easy to forget that he just turned 19 and has played in exactly one college game in which the outcome was in doubt. "The game is still going to be really, really fast the first snap of the Rice game," Gale Gilbert said.

Still, Gilbert never will face more pressure than he faced on that night in Pasadena when he showed no fear and told Davis exactly what he saw. "I don't think there is any question having to play in the national championship game is a benefit in the grand scheme of things," Davis said. "It wasn't that night. But today, it is a benefit."

Once the pain of the loss subsided, even Gilbert finally saw the burnt orange lining. "Being able to be on that stage in that situation, I learned to have confidence in myself from now on," Gilbert said. "I can do it."

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