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The Wisdom of Starting Garrett Gilbert to Open 2011

Garrett Gilbert gets the first chance of the 2011 season, but is up against his last chance to show he's capable of leading Texas to compete for titles.
Garrett Gilbert gets the first chance of the 2011 season, but is up against his last chance to show he's capable of leading Texas to compete for titles.

As you know by now, the first depth chart for the Texas Longhorns 2011 football team is out and Garrett Gilbert is the starting quarterback heading into the season opener versus Rice.  My esteemed colleague Big Roy framed it as a starting gig Gilbert not so much won, but retained on the basis of experience:

When asked why Gilbert won the job, Brown cited his experience and leadership abilities, then concluded simply that "he's older." Sounds like after months of competition, the only thing that separated Gilbert from the rest was game reps.

Not consistently making better decisions or having a better arm. Not because the team rallied around him. After charting every situation, every throw, after all the scrutiny, Gilbert won the job because he's simply older.

It's a fair take, considering Gilbert's lackluster performance in the spring game and inability to seize the lead role immediately in fall camp. Even so, the decision to install Gilbert as QB1 heading into the season seems to me the right one.

To begin with, this is not a Zac Lee 2010 situation, in which the team appears just a quarterback away from BCS Bowl contention. Perhaps that's true with Texas in 2011, but it seems more likely to be a building year towards runs in 2012 and '13. As such, the penalty for missing on the quarterback decision isn't as severe as it would be in a season in which the position may be the only missing piece. Even if Gilbert is disastrous out of the gates and Texas drops two or more of its first three against Rice, BYU, and UCLA, the losses aren't likely to be the difference between Texas winning a conference championship and/or making a BCS Bowl.

Instead, a poor start by Gilbert mostly means a definitive pivot to David Ash and Case McCoy, the rest of the season an ongoing competition between the two to emerge as the leader of teams that will be positioned to compete for titles. Moreover, there is some benefit in making such a pivot after a Gilbert stumble, as opposed to right from the get-go, when the pressures of a blank slate, full season ahead, and eager fan expectations would put UT's younger signal callers under enormous pressure.  Whereas early-season struggles by Gilbert would simply close a disappointing chapter, with Ash or McCoy such struggles could derail a promising future.

Speaking of which, the decision to start Gilbert also seems wise considering the severe handicap that he has had to overcome following the pitiful job Texas's coaches did with last year's offense. He may well never recover from that, but it's not unreasonable to believe that he will improve under better direction, approach, and leadership. Whether that improvement is modest, or unlocks a huge step forward, will determine whether Gilbert has a chance to lead Texas to a special season, this year or -- more likely -- next.  It seems to me justifiable that the coaching staff is interested in finding out.

Related to the above, most of the downside here is with Gilbert himself, who will lose his entire third year of eligibility if he struggles through two or three games and is replaced. If he knew that's how this season going to go, Gilbert probably would prefer not to start and to sit out a redshirt season before transferring elsewhere with two years of remaining eligibility. As explained, I don't see nearly as much downside for Texas in something of a building season; at the end of the day, it matters much more whether this season launches the team towards big-time success in the next two years than whether the 'Horns go 7-6 as opposed to 9-4.

Ultimately, that's what makes me think starting Gilbert is the right decision. If by starting Gilbert the coaches were clearly risking a shot at an 11-1 kind of season, the decision would be a lot more controversial -- indeed, I would vehemently oppose it.  As it is, there are too many questions about Ash and McCoy that it doesn't seem particularly likely either is ready to lead UT to a special season right away.  And in any event, starting Gilbert does not preclude the coaches from working in Ash and/or McCoy this season as they see fit, even if Gilbert thrives.

And if all that's right, then starting Gilbert isn't just justifiable -- it's probably wise. Gilbert gets a chance to show that in an improved system he's capable of shining, which if he does is hardly anything about which to lament. And if not? Well, either he bombs out early and is replaced early, or he plods along not-well-enough, and the Texas staff has the information they need to begin turning towards the next chapter, and the new lead gets to begin the takeover without the undue pressure of the season's expectations on his shoulders.

Gilbert may not have won the job emphatically, but he has played well enough this fall -- especially in the last three weeks -- that the decision to open the 2011 season with him as the starter is the right one.

I'll be rooting for Texas and Gilbert to start fast and turn out an outstanding season, start-to-finish. And if Gilbert struggles, or simply doesn't demonstrate the ability to be better than average, then I'll be excited to see what the new kids can do.  And I'll feel better about where they're starting from.

5 days to kick off... Hook 'em