Garrett Gilbert has never thought about this, but he could have been Tua Tagovailoa before Tua Tagovailoa. The whole true-freshman-gets-thrust-into-national-championship-game-and-saves-the-day story was his for the taking 10 years ago.
When Colt McCoy was knocked out five plays into the national championship game that capped off the 2009 season, Gilbert was called up. He remembers being on the Rose Bowl sideline in a baseball cap and looking at the video board for a replay because he didn’t see the hit. Then he remembers seeing chaos on the sideline, spending too much time looking for his helmet, and finally going in. “The next time I came up for air was halftime,” Gilbert says. “Everything [in the first half] was a blur.”
The part of that night often forgotten by everyone else is that despite finishing 15-of-40 for 186 passing yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions in Texas’s 37–21 loss to Alabama, Gilbert nearly led a comeback. Down just 24–21 with 3:14 left, the Longhorns were a 93-yard scoring drive away from Gilbert going down as a savior. But after a penalty and a strip-sack that led to touchdowns from Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, the game was over.
Despite the loss, Gilbert had gained invaluable experience and remained Texas’s quarterback of the future. He’d been the No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect in Texas during the 2009 recruiting cycle for a reason. He was teed up perfectly to take over for McCoy and continue the Longhorns’ winning tradition under Mack Brown.
Except that’s not how his story went. Gilbert didn’t win enough games over the next two seasons at Texas, transferred from his childhood dream school to SMU to finish his college career, and became a sixth-round pick by the St. Louis Rams in the 2014 NFL draft. Since then, he’s floated between five different NFL scout teams, winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots as a member of the practice squad at the end of his rookie season.
Now Gilbert, 27, finds himself playing for Steve Spurrier and the Orlando Apollos in the new Alliance of American Football league. And he’s never looked better.
Gilbert wanted nothing more in life growing up in Austin than to be the quarterback at Texas. After winning consecutive state championships at Lake Travis, earning Gatorade National Player of the Year and becoming a consensus five-star recruit, that’s exactly the opportunity he created for himself.
After the national championship game, Gilbert felt good about making the offense his that 2010 season. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis was successful running the zone read and catering to big, physical passers like Vince Young in the past, and Gilbert was 6'4" and just over 200 pounds as a freshman. Although Gilbert says nothing felt off about the 2010 offseason at the time, the effects of a championship game hangover and the departure of McCoy, leading receiver Jordan Shipley and several defensive contributors were plain to see by the time the season rolled around. Texas crashed to 5–7, and head coach Mack Brown made significant staff changes, which included Davis resigning and being replaced by co-offensive coordinators Major Applewhite and Bryan Harsin, who was known for his aggressive and innovative offenses at Boise State. Gilbert had to quickly learn a completely new system, which didn’t pan out.
“Garrett is a very smart guy and he wants to do everything perfect and you change coaches on him, change systems, and then you’re a rookie again every time you do that,” says June Jones, who coached Gilbert at SMU from 2012 to ’13. “Some guys need to be in the same system with the same coaches. I think if Garrett had played for me for five years he probably would have been a first-round draft pick.”
Gilbert started two games as a junior in 2011 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. By that point, he wasn’t in a good place mentally. He’d been listening to the crowd’s boos and reading negative coverage. His parents, who live in Austin, stopped taking the local newspaper. Ultimately, Gilbert and his family decided he needed a fresh start, so he hustled to graduate early and transferred to SMU, where he was immediately eligible.
Gilbert was more comfortable in Jones’s Air Raid offense, though he still had to regain confidence. In his fourth game starting for the Mustangs, Gilbert went 23-of-44 for 274 yards with four interceptions and was sacked six times as TCU crushed SMU, 48–17. The next day, Jones pulled a dejected Gilbert aside and highlighted the positive things he did and reinforced trust in his quarterback.
“I knew that he had it in him because I had watched him in high school and he was the top quarterback in the country,” says Jones, now an associate coach for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. “As an 18-, 19-year-old kid to go through what he went through at Texas, basically getting booed at a young age, it certainly shocks your confidence. I knew it was going to take a little time for him to come out of that shell, and we got him to come out of it.”
Eventually Gilbert grew out of his funk. In his final college season in 2013, SMU had a top-10 passing offense and he finished fourth in FBS in passing yards per game, completing 66.5% of his passes for 3,528 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Gilbert doesn’t point fingers as to why things didn’t work out at Texas. It can be chalked up to wrong place, wrong time where he didn’t win enough games and also couldn’t find stability among the multiple offensive coordinator and identity changes.
“To be honest, things just didn’t work out for whatever reason and that wasn’t meant to be,” Gilbert says, looking back. “I’m very thankful for my time at Texas. It got me to where I’m at today, and without having battled through some adversity there I don’t think I’d still be playing football. I’m thankful for that opportunity and what it taught me.”
Where Gilbert is today is the star of the Alliance of American Football. He’s enjoying the revival of his career under the 73-year-old Spurrier’s quarterback-friendly offense.
“He’s a natural passer, a beautiful passer,” Spurrier says. “His ball comes out almost with a perfect spiral every time and his balls are catchable. We’ve worked on timing with receivers, head position and all the kind of stuff, and he’s coming around nicely.
“He’s a very good player. A very good player.”
The Apollos are 5–0 at the midway point of the AAF’s inaugural season, and Gilbert leads the league with 1,357 passing yards for eight touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s been the most impressive player by far, with other recognizable college quarterbacks like Zach Mettenberger (475 yards, one INT, three TDs) and Christian Hackenberg (277, 3, 0) trailing behind.
The goal is to earn a more permanent opportunity in the NFL by showcasing his talents in the AAF. But winning is fun, as is getting added reps and taking ownership of a team for the first time since college. He’s been voted captain every week by his teammates, a group he had no experience playing with up until this year.
“In the [NFL] preseason you get a few snaps here, a few quarters there,” Gilbert says. “So to be able to have this opportunity and actually get to play for an extended period of time is fun.
“And I’m just excited about this next chapter. You never really know what to expect [in the NFL] and a lot of guys in the past, if something didn’t work out, that was kind of it. And to be able to have this chance and put something on tape and give myself another shot, I’m certainly excited.”
Coaches who know him best can’t pinpoint why Gilbert never caught on with an NFL team when he has all the tools and physical traits. “He’s a genuine leader,” says Chad Morris, who coached Gilbert in high school and is now the head coach at Arkansas. “He’s extremely intelligent and knows where everybody is supposed to be, understands coverages and leverages of routes and he’s able to coach those guys up.”
Spurrier thinks he still could be a franchise quarterback because “he’s tough, stays in the pocket, takes the hit, and can make all the throws—there’s no question he can be outstanding for whoever.” Jones says that if he were coaching in the NFL, Gilbert would be playing very well for him. “You have to have someone who believes in you, wants you to be the guy and knows how to bring the best out [of you].”
At the midway point in the AAF season, Gilbert hasn’t heard from any NFL coaches or scouts. Players are held to their AAF contracts through the season but can sign free-agent contracts afterward. He’s not concerned by that at the moment, though.
“I don’t know if, when those things will come, but right now I’m in a position where I’d like to stay focused and continue working on being the best quarterback I can be for this team,” Gilbert says. “If I focus on what I’m doing every day here and improving, then those things will take care of themselves.”
Gilbert has thought about what comes after football. He’d consider coaching. In fact, Morris tried to hire him when he was coaching at SMU from 2015 to ’17 and has said whenever Gilbert is ready to “just holler.” Gilbert was working as a coach at a high school in Charlotte when the Carolina Panthers called on Christmas Eve to re-sign him as a backup. He played in one game against the New Orleans Saints, completing two of three passes for 40 yards in his first appearance on an NFL stat sheet. His second career is on hold until he finishes taking advantage of every possible opportunity at his dream job. His current head coach is one of many rooting for him.
“He’s a good one,” Spurrier says. “Hopefully he can lead us to big things here, then get a shot in the NFL next year.”