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The Rise, Fall, and Return of Garrett Gilbert

When he went to the University of Texas, Garrett Gilbert believed the sky was the limit. “My expectations were just like anyone at Texas: to win every game.” That was the mindset of everyone watching Texas football at the time. They were a perennial national championship contender in a state loaded with high school talent. So why did things not work out when highly touted quarterback Garrett Gilbert, a Gatorade High School Player of the Year, took over the reigns after Colt McCoy graduated? Gilbert prefers not to dwell on that because he is looking to the future. He just finished his best statistical college season, at SMU, and he hopes to have a shot at playing in the NFL.

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Coming out of high school in 2008, Gilbert was one of the nation’s top recruits and the consensus top high school quarterback in the country after a decorated career at Lake Travis High School near Austin, Texas. He had just won his second straight state championship, he held the state record for career passing yards, and he was an Under Armor All-America. Some analysts called Gilbert one of the best high school quarterbacks of all time, so the expectations were sky high when he arrived at Texas in the fall of 2009.

Gilbert was the second string quarterback to Colt McCoy during his freshman season, and he played sparingly during the regular season. The Longhorns cruised to an unbeaten regular season and scratched out a 13-12 win over Nebraska in the Big 12 title game, earning a berth in the national championship game against Alabama. In the first quarter, the Crimson Tide knocked McCoy out of the game and Gilbert was immediately thrust into the biggest game of the college season. “The whole experience for me is kind of a whirlwind to this day,” Gilbert says. “I was just thinking to myself [at halftime], ‘What is going on right now?’” Gilbert showed poise, keeping the Longhorns in the game against the vaunted Alabama defense, but they ultimately came up short.

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The next season, Gilbert won the starting job. Unfortunately, the season didn’t go so well. The proud program went 5-7 just a year after going to the national championship game. Many blamed Gilbert because he threw 17 interceptions compared to just 10 touchdowns. In 2011, Gilbert retained his starting job for the season opener, but after a shoulder injury sidelined him he was benched. He had to have surgery, ending his season and his Texas career.

At that point, Gilbert decided to transfer to a different program in an effort to jumpstart his career. “Obviously, I didn’t have as much success going to Texas as I expected,” he says. “I knew I was going to have surgery, so I just started shopping around, looking at some different schools.” Normally, transfers have to sit out a year when they get to their new school if they go to another Football Bowl Subdivision program, so originally Gilbert was leaning towards going to a Football Championship Subdivision school, allowing him to play immediately. But Gilbert found a rule allowing student-athletes to play immediately at their FBS transfer school if they graduate from their original school before transferring. “The spring semester of my last year at Texas, I took 27 hours of classes, which is 9 classes,” Gilbert says. “It’s pretty much like going to a full day of school every day.” Graduating from UT allowed Gilbert to suit up for SMU and Coach June Jones in 2012.

“Coach Jones has an unbelievable track record of coaching really good quarterbacks for a long time, and that was something that attracted me to [SMU],” Gilbert says. “It just seemed like a perfect fit. We get to throw the ball a lot, and I thought it could be a lot of fun.” It took some time for Gilbert to adapt to Jones’s run-and-shoot offense, but his SMU career really took off on Christmas Eve 2012, when he threw for 212 yards and a touchdown and added 98 yards and a TD on the ground in a 43-10 rout of heavily favored Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. “Coach Jones is a little like a celebrity [in Hawaii, where he once coached] and the game was a lot of fun,” Gilbert says.

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This season Gilbert put up huge numbers, including a game against Rutgers in which he threw for 484 yards and had seven total touchdowns in a triple-overtime loss. He set SMU’s single-game records for passing yards, passing touchdowns, and total touchdowns. However, he wasn’t satisfied. “As great as it looks on paper, to me the only thing that matters is getting the win,” he said after the game. In the Mustangs’ next home game, a win over Temple, Gilbert picked up right where he left off, racking up 538 passing yards, 97 rushing yards, and six total touchdowns. His record-setting performance earned him the National Offensive Player of the Week award, given out by the Walter Camp Football Foundation.

Heading into a matchup with South Florida in week 11, Gilbert was leading the country in total offense at 408.3 yards per game. Unfortunately, a knee injury kept him from playing in his final two college games. Redshirt freshman Neal Burcham was forced to step in and take the majority off the snaps for the Mustangs. Despite Burcham showing potential, SMU lost its last two games, missing out on what would have been their fifth straight bowl game.

As for Gilbert, he isn’t done yet. He’ll be looking to impress NFL scouts at his pro day, and possibly at the combine. Despite falling off the radar of many teams after leaving Texas, Gilbert is still an intriguing NFL prospect. At 6’ 4” and 218 pounds, he is built like the prototypical NFL quarterback. He has good footwork in the pocket, and, for a big guy, he is a solid running threat. Gilbert is a great passer who can make every throw on the field. While the physical tools are there, what Gilbert really wants NFL teams to see are the mental facets of his game. “I want [teams] to see that I’m as tough a competitor as there is, both physically and mentally,” he says.

Gilbert’s journey from top high school recruit, to quarterbacking Texas in the national title game, to leading a smaller program at SMU, is certainly an unusual path. His redemption will be complete if he makes an NFL roster next year. With his great physical tools, intelligence and mental toughness, and obvious resilience, I wouldn’t bet against him.