Setting the stage
In 2009, freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert won't contribute in the same way that Barrett Matthews could contribute in helping the first-team offense win games -- for Gilbert, it's more about laying a foundation for taking over in 2010. Mack Brown has made it abundantly clear that he regrets not playing Colt McCoy as a true freshman, setting up the overly conservative game plan and loss at home to Ohio State in 2007. The propensity of Brown and company to retreat into "let's not lose the game mode" on offense was a constantly nagging factor leading to Brown's reputation for having an inability to win big games. The handling of Garrett Gilbert in the fall is a perfect opportunity to manifest those learnings though major philosophical adjustments.
Avoiding past mistakes
Long-winded ground setting aside, there's a difference between meaningful and meaningless snaps. Sorry, there's still some more ground setting: The "Lightning" package in 2007 lead by John Chiles and the second-team unit was conceived, but never made a priority until the Holiday Bowl rolled around. Abortive, just like the "Q" package the following season. That's 0-for-2 in attempting to develop John Chiles.
In two seasons at quarterback, those "Lightning" package plays were the only meaningful snaps Chiles received. Everything else was designed to run out the clock in terms of play-calling, with Chiles often pressing trying to make something happen in an effort to earn more playing time. How productive is it for the potential future starting quarterback and the head coach/offensive coordinator to have different goals late in blowouts?
If the Longhorns want to be competitive in 2010, like BCS bowl competitive, which should be the goal even in a re-loading season ("re-building" isn't in the vocabulary), Gilbert must receive the meaningful snaps in his first season that Chiles never received in his two years.
What are "meaningful snaps?" A meaningful snap is a snap with the intention of picking up maximum yardage, scoring more points. It's about "game" repetitions, not shepherding the clock and opposing coaches feelings to an end that keeps the opponent from feeling too bad about themselves.
Gilbert needs work during games with the group of players he will be playing with throughout his career. Colt McCoy won't need a ton of repetitions to stay sharp in the fall, so designate a group of players with eligibility after 2009 to form a unit with whom Gilbert will get game reps. Players like Malcolm Williams, Brandon Collins, James Kirkendoll, DJ Grant, John Chiles, DeSean Hales -- rapport with the receiving corps is more important than other positions and takes longer to build.
Use Gilbert and his unit (the "G-Unit?") early in games during the non-conference season, even against Texas Tech. For Chiles and the "Lightning" package, it was roughly every third series. That works. Consider attempting to actually run the offense Gilbert will be in charge of in 2010 instead of killing the clock when sitting on a big lead. If the human pollsters proved one thing last season it was a fascination with major offensive output. What good did it do to score only 49 points against the Aggies when the Sooners were dropping 60+ on everyone and the pollsters were sprouting gigantic boners as a result?
Going undefeated and making it to Pasadena are the ultimate goals of the 2009 season and will probably necessarily go hand-in-hand, but the biggest tertiary goal of the season is helping Gilbert gain confidence and experience entering his sophomore season. If the Longhorns do run more high-tempo, no-huddle offense in 2009 and envision that as the future, Gilbert needs experience getting up to the line of scrimmage and getting plays off quickly.
Whither the Gilbert offense?
Any time the offense changes quarterbacks, it's look must change correspondingly, even if the change is more evolution than revolution. To that end, answering the following questions becomes a high priority: How much can Gilbert run the zone read? The offenses of Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer demonstrate that adding the option to the spread is one of the most effective ways of running the football without a fullback. If the zone-blocking scheme doesn't make progress in 2009, how will the Longhorns run the football if they stay in a predominantly 11-personnel shotgun spread? Can Gilbert run the zone read at all? Will the passing game continue to rely on short, high-percentage passes? What about the tempo?
Once again, the formula is simple -- get Gilbert meaningful snaps and the 2010 Longhorn offense should be able to hit the ground running before Big 12 play starts. It isn't necessarily about contributing in 2009, but putting Gilbert in the best position to succeed when he takes over for Colt McCoy. To answer the questions posed above, Gilbert should focus on specific areas of improvement:
- Throwing the deep ball - Gilbert significantly cut his interceptions from his junior year, 11 to 6. However, after watching Gilbert against Dripping Springs and Westlake, the decrease may somewhat be a result of better decision-making, but also a function of opposing defenders generally lacking ball skills. that was the case on several throws in the two games I was able to watch. Supporting that theory is the percentage of his interceptions that he threw in the playoffs -- 50%, in a fraction of the attempts. Even looking at his highlights, Gilbert would often heave great parabolas downfield off his back foot and let his receivers go make plays on the ball. High school throws to the max. Gilbert will have Malcolm Williams in the prime of his career -- as a junior and senior, so throwing the deep ball will have a bigger role in the offense than 2008, if Gilbert improves his footwork and flattens out his throws a bit to decrease hang time.
- Maximizing his speed and explosiveness - Colt McCoy is now faster and more explosive than he was when he arrived at Texas. Garrett Gilbert needs to be faster and more explosive in 2010 than he is right now. The positive is that everyone around Gilbert says that he's a hard worker. After picking up so many yards on the ground in the playoffs, I felt much more confident about his ability to run the football in college, but after watching a my man-crush JW Walsh, I've tempered by expectations. Granted, that may be a big of an overreaction, especially because Gilbert's athleticism will always be somewhat sneaky because of his size. He doesn't exactly cover ground like Vince Young, but he does cover a lot of ground with each stride because of his 6-4 (possibly closer to 6-5) height. A lot of the skill position guys work with speed trainers, which may be a good idea for Gilbert. The easiest piece of advice -- just do whatever Colt did.
Making college-level throws - In high school, where the defensive backs are generally small and not that fast, it's easy for talented quarterbacks to get into bad habits throwing the ball into coverage and letting the receiver make a play on it. Gilbert is as guilty of this as any quarterback and needs the opportunity to adjust to the college-level speed of the game before 2010. Fortunately for the Longhorns, even if Gilbert never receives the prescribed work, he will be facing an excellent secondary in practice that will help him make the adjustment.