Making the drive from Austin out into Hill country to Lake Travis High School, I reflected on the cause of my journey. It was the type of gentle Texas evening that calls for contemplation. I'm one of the lucky ones, still living in Austin, close enough to follow one of the most gifted quarterbacks in the country. The reasons for my journey, however, were altruistic: To give Longhorn fans around the world a glimpse at their future signal-caller. Not completely altruistic though, as the evening combined two of my greatest loves: the not-too-warm, not-even-close-to-cold fall Texas evenings that seem like a heartfelt apology from nature for the months of blazingly hot days. And football.
The Lake Travis stadium sits elevated on the side of a hill with a view of surrounding Hill Country. Austin hides behind the hills directly in front of the home seats, revealing itself during the evening only through the Halloween fireworks peeking above those hills. It's the type of idyllic seemingly perfectly suited for raising tall, golden boy quarterbacks, sired by NFL quarterback fathers. A different culture perhaps, but similar circumstances bred Chris Simms. And the Manning brothers, too, no doubt. But there will be no new Major Applewhite to Gilbert's Simms. No, this native Texan is fated to be the next Longhorn quarterback. Hailing from Texas, the local product will receive a cushion from doubters that Chris Simms could have only dreamed about and looks well on his way to becoming a future star at the University of Texas.
Lake Travis and Dripping Springs have been rivals ever since the Lake Travis school district was carved out from Dripping Springs ISD. And the stakes could have not have any higher on this evening: Both teams came in 8-0, battling for the District 25-4A championship. It was an emotional and star-studded Senior Night for Lake Travis, with Garrett Gilbert's father, Brad Gilbert, the former NFL quarterback, in attendance, along with former Heisman winner and BYU star Ty Detmer, whose daughter is a senior cheerleader (he has no sons among his four children). The night had a distinctly Longhorn flavor, as well, with Russell Erxleben, the former Texas kicker, present to watch his son, Ryan, play. Another former Texas star and gold medal winner, Johnny "Lam" Jones, was present for the ceremonial coin toss, while former cornerback and "Lifetime Longhorn" Rod Babers roamed the sideline for AM 1300's radio broadcast.
Dripping Springs controlled the ball for most of the first quarter as the Cavalier offense, out of rhythm, sputtered out of the gates, with Gilbert throwing only his second interception of the season on an ill-advised pass he lofted into the secondary. To make matters worse for Lake Travis, Ryan Erxleben suffered what appeared to be a concussion early in the first quarter and eventually left on a stretcher. His defensive teammates stepped up in his absence, however, flying to the ball, with senior defensive back Harry Hatch delivering some spectacularly hard hits.
It was defensive back Michael Streuling who ruined the chances for a Dripping Springs victory. He intercepted two passes and blocked a punt in the first half, leading to every Lake Travis touchdown in the half and a 21-3 lead. Lake Travis quickly put the game out of reach in the second half with two quick touchdowns, as the offense finally found a rhythm with misdirection plays, swing passes, and designed runs for Garrett Gilbert, despite having two long plays (a 70+ yard touchdown run by Gilbert and an equally long swing pass) called back on penalties.
Running the football: Besides the game against Westlake, the Cavaliers hadn't had to use Gilbert much in the running game. In fact, he had a stretch of four games only carrying the football once. On this night, however, with Dripping Springs playing deep in the secondary, Gilbert showed off his running ability on scrambles and designed quarterback runs, including a 70-something yarder called back because of a holding penalty behind the play. He won't be breaking long runs in college, but he does have enough elusiveness and speed to stay ahead of the chains.
Garrett Gilbert vs. Dripping Springs (Runs) (via ghostofbigroy)
- Physically mature: Gilbert looks like he's ready to be a starting college quarterback. Where Colt McCoy came into the program at a slight 180 pounds, Gilbert already looks strong in his upper body. Not with the guns that McCoy has now, but more like McCoy looked in 2007. He stands at 6-5, the same height as his father, former NFL quarterback. He's basically the prototypical size for a quarterback. The kind of guy even Gary Danielson would like (assuming he likes anyone outside the SEC).
- Throwing on the run: It was something I noticed during the game against Westlake: Gilbert throws well on the run, even rolling to his left, something few right-handed quarterbacks do well on any level. It comes down to sound mechanics, demonstrating the incredible advantage of having an NFL quarterback for a father. Think Peyton Manning, who, despite what he might tell you in a commercial, doesn't have a "laser rocket arm" but is capable of making every throw because of his perfect mechanics in the pocket. Gilbert demonstrates the same quality of mechanics on the move.
No ill effects of labrum tear: Gilbert this season has put to rest this any concern about fully recovering from the slight labrum tear he played through last fall. The arm strength is there for him and he's not afraid of throwing the ball downfield, a tactic he tried about 10 times against Dripping Springs.
Garrett Gilbert vs. Dripping Springs (Completed Passes) (via ghostofbigroy)
- Sells fakes well: The Lake Travis offenses features significant misdirection, consistently asking Gilbert to sell throwback screens and "Statue of Liberty" plays. It's something that can be underrated for quarterbacks, but the results speak volumes. The team was successful on the plays, which means that Gilbert was getting defensive players out of position with what he was doing. Now if only Greg Davis would incorporate some misdirection into the offense.
Accuracy on swing passes: The most successful plays Lake Travis ran were swing passes and screens. While they are easy passes, Gilbert hits his receivers in their chest and in stride. No small feat for a quarterback. I grew up on Illinois fan and I've seen Juice Williams repeatedly miss swing passes and screen passes during his three years as Illinois quarterback. He has a better arm than most quarterbacks, but missing easy passes kills any offensive rhythm.
Garrett Gilbert vs. Dripping Springs (Swing Passes/Screens) (via ghostofbigroy)
Note: These are all relatively minor quibbles because the two times I've seen Gilbert haven't elucidated any significant problems.
Scrambling mechanics. On designed rollouts in either direction, Gilbert is exceptional. However, I noticed that his mechanics often broke down when scrambling or moving to create time, often relying solely on his arm strength instead of stepping into his throw. This is something Texas coaches will be able to fix easily.
- Matt Leinart syndrome: By this I mean that he has a tendency to lob passes, especially when throwing downfield. As noted above, this isn't an issue of arm strength, but rather of mechanical breakdowns. I didn't notice him lacking zip on the outs and long intermediate throws (10-20 yards), but he gives defenders too much time to make a play on the ball by putting too much air under it. He needs to learn to make those throws on a line to give his receivers a better chance, because those balls will be picked off in college.
Underthrows over middle: During the first part of the game, the Lake Travis offense struggled to develop a rhythm in the face of a Dripping Springs defense that was covering well down field. Gilbert missed two throws down the middle of the field by leaving them several feet short. It will help in college to have wide receivers with a height advantage on the defensive backs defending them, but Gilbert will have to make these throws more consistently in college, especially since the offense will probably have to drop the zone read plays with Gilbert not being a threat on designed runs. A more pro-style system at Texas will demand greater accuracy down the field from Gilbert.
Garrett Gilbert vs. Dripping Springs (Incompletions) (via ghostofbigroy)
- Check downs: Gilbert looked to be forcing passes downfield against Dripping Springs. Not having watched Lake Travis enough, I'm not sure if that is the design of the offense. Major Applewhite has helped Colt McCoy tremendously by emphasizing the checkdown to his running backs. Gilbert will need to learn to do the same thing in college, as he often holds the ball too long waiting for receivers to flash open down the field.
Verdict: The only real questions about Gilbert seem to be about his arm strength and ability to run the football in the current offense that Texas runs. Greg Davis may have to adjust the offense back to a style more similar to the one that Chris Simms ran at Texas. However, if Gilbert works hard to improve his speed, it is possible that he might turn into an adequate runner in college, although more likely on scrambles than designed runs. Colt McCoy he isn't. The arm strength shouldn't be a problem either, but Gilbert needs to work on his mechanics when moving and get rid of his bad habit of lobbing passes downfield. He needs to step into those throws and put them on a line. With all of that said, he throws well on the run moving in either direction and should be prepared to contribute as soon as he steps on campus. There's no reason to think that Gilbert won't be the next star quarterback at Texas. Which he needs to become, particularly if Russell Shepard thrives at LSU.