With Garrett Gilbert looking like the prospective starter once again after doing nothing more than managing the game during Friday night's all-important scrimmage, the focus must turn again to what often appears to be a damaged psyche. After bad plays -- interceptions on tipped balls, fumbles, etc -- Gilbert often displays the type of poor body language indicative of a player with little confidence.
Still, after a positive week of practice and the equally positive news that he was able to avoid throwing an interception on Friday, the talk has turned once again to whether or not he's turned a corner and suddenly become the leader that he's needed to be for some time, the leader the coaches want him to be, and a quarterback who can at the very least manage a team to the extent that he's not the clear difference between winning and losing.
Here was Scipio's take a week ago after the disastrous first scrimmage that put Gilbert's mental state into sharp, unpleasant relief:
Doom and doubt hangs over him like the stink on Pigpen in the Peanuts gang. Other players sense that. Of course, it’s all a self-perpetuating mind fuck, but when when you imagine something to be real, it is real. He has issues seeing the field and, as I’ve held since he first entered our awareness, he is a system QB with a pre-snap decision-making process trained by his high school offense. He also has a NFL QB Dad who was a career back-up and we can all work through that psychological interplay easily enough. Garrett Gilbert can lead this offense, but he must un-f**k himself. Right now Gilbert is a guy that things happen to. He needs to be the player that make things happen.
So while Bryan Harsin has spent time with Gilbert working on his mechanics in an effort to improve his ability to get the ball out more quickly and deliver it on target to the sidelines, it sounds like Major Applewhite is taking on the role of Gilbert's psychologist, reminding him that he doesn't have to do everything himself:
That was always the comforting factor for me - just understanding not everything is on you. There are other guys who need to do their job. Some of the mistakes he made last season were compounded by the situations we found ourselves in. We were having to throw the ball more because we were behind. So he gets thrust into situations where they are dropping eight and dropping nine.
We've explained to him that, 'Hey, you were put in some very tough spots last year. Having to come back against Kansas State and other teams. You were throwing the ball more than we wanted you to.' You try to explain that to him and then say, 'We're not going to put as much on your plate and put you behind the eight ball. It's going to be a little more team oriented and not as much quarterback driven as it was with Colt (McCoy) and Vince (Young).
Of course, there's a lot of sense in what Applewhite has been telling Gilbert and it's quite possible that helping him re-focus on what the offense can do to help him this season and putting last season squarely in the rearview could be one of the reasons that he's coming off his best week of fall camp needing only to avoid a complete and total meltdown to keep the job.
The concern is that while the coaches work so hard to build him up that they aren't able to coach him hard. There is certainly some evidence that Gilbert has been protected at times by the coaches, the type of protection that does little to develop the mental toughness so severely lacking at times in the Lake Travis product.
The summer story about promising former quarterback Sherrod Harris a chance to play in the second half of the championship game and then leaving Gilbert in was only the first in several data points suggesting that the coaches have been treating Gilbert extremely gently throughout his time in Austin. Not pulling Gilbert after five interceptions against Kansas State is unquestionably another data point, though the third is more questionable -- the article from Kirk Bohls about Gilbert being promised the job.
Contrast that treatment and Applewhite's earlier comments with this quote about wanting to put the players in pressure situations during practice to not only see how they respond, but to let them know that they have to work hard to earn or keep their jobs:
You use the word uncomfortable. You want to make them a little bit uncomfortable from the standpoint where you just can't rest on their laurels. You can't sit in the shade, and I think that's been apparent. There's been fifth-year seniors that have been starters that have seen freshmen or sophomores go ahead of them, so they've had to fight back to get those opportunities back and get those positions there. That's healthy, and that's what you want to do as a team and a coach. You want to create an environment where you're guys feel like they've got to produce to their potential every single day to earn their job.
Doesn't exactly sound like Gilbert is receiving the same treatment as the rest of the team, does it?
The perception that Gilbert didn't have to do much during the scrimmage on Friday only feeds into that notion. With the running game reportedly gashing the defense for much of the practice, Gilbert only had to take care of the football in a scrimmage that was all about creating separation with the quarterbacks. He may have won the job under little duress, never facing the type of adversity he responded to so poorly last season and during the first scrimmage.
Applewhite echoed the mostly positive reports emerging from the second scrimmage about Gilbert's play:
He took care of the ball real well. He made some really good decisions in the red zone. He made some tight throws in the red zone. Not risky throws. But every throw is tight in the red zone, and he had accurate, tight throws in the red zone. Took care of the ball, and had some formations here and there that he had to straighten out. I thought he had a clean scrimmage.
As heartening as the lack of mistakes and the redzone production are, it's still hard to believe that Gilbert somehow turned some major corner in the last week and stopped being the quarterback that he's been for his entire time at Texas. Those covering football and sports in general often like to point to the proverbial light coming on for players, but arguing that it's happened for Gilbert with no warning strikes a false note with this writer.
The coaches may not have rigged the competition to ensure that Gilbert would win it. And while what should be an improved running game can and will make things easier on the prospective starter -- much easier than last season, in fact -- what happens when Gilbert once again faces adversity, as he could as early as the BYU and UCLA games?
Will Gilbert make things happen at that point, or will he continue to let things happen to him, let his shoulders slump, and head to the sidelines pulling on his face mask, wondering why he has such poor luck?