Following the 50-47 double-overtime victory by the Texas Longhorns over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Sunday evening, sophomore wide receiver John Burt was asked to describe 38-year-old offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert.
Burt hesitated, trying to come up with something.
"For lack of a better word, he’s like a bro," Burt finally said.
Not like a member of the bro culture, the association with which tends to be derogatory in nature. Instead, Gilbert is just someone to whom the players can relate.
But the offensive coordinator did want to know exactly what his explosive wide receiver meant. So he asked him.
"Coach, it’s how you interact with us," said Burt.
Known for a willingness to joke around with his players, Gilbert doesn’t mind the description.
"So I took that as a positive and I probably reached back to being a high school football coach and how we are with our kids," Gilbert said. "Everything is based on relationships and being able to relate to kids. And especially young kids and that's our job."
Senior Tyrone Swoopes didn't use the word bro, but had a similar assessment of his offensive coordinator.
"On the field he brings energy every day," Swoopes said. "I know a couple weeks ago he was sick. He looked really bad in the meetings before practice, but he still came out with the same energy he had every day. So he's a great coach.
"Then off the field, he's just basically like one of the players. He's always talking to us, just seeing how we're doing and everything like that. He's a great coach. We love him."
Five short years ago, Gilbert was building those relationships as the offensive coordinator at Temple High School just up the road from Austin. Now he’s installed the Art Briles veer-and-shoot attack at his fourth school and could position himself as one of the rising stars in college football with some continued success.
Other than the tempo of the offense, Gilbert’s greatest success in his Longhorns debut was managing the quarterback situation and putting both in a position to succeed. Finding the right flow of the game for when to go with the 18-Wheeler package and when to stick with freshman quarterback Shane Buechele.
For a guy who hasn’t really called plays at the college level, it was all the more incredible and at least temporarily answered questions about Gilbert’s ability to do so effectively.
The fact that Buechele and senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes are so unselfish and team-oriented in supporting each other completely is a huge benefit to Gilbert and the offense, too.
"It’s a blessing and what you see is, like any other position, is you see talented guys and our job as coaches is to be able to find a way to utilize talent and that’s what we did and that’s what happened tonight along with all those other guys being able to make plays from series in and series out," Gilbert said after the game.
With Buechele improving throughout his time at Texas and Swoopes growing into a powerful and effective runner working downhill, Gilbert will have to maintain that balance and continue to utilize his two quarterbacks effectively.
To do so, the Longhorns offense may have to be a little bit less predictable, as the ‘Horns ran the ball 25 times on first down against the Irish.
Asked about that during his weekly media availability, Gilbert danced around the question a bit, so it’s reasonable to guess that the ideal for his offense is to execute successfully even when the opponent knows what’s coming and take advantage of tired defenses with the tempo.
That was certainly the case with Swoopes behind center, as he only threw one pass on the day — every other snap for him was a running play, so the offense may need to diversify moving forward.
One of the players who made that success possible on the ground, especially in the 18-Wheeler package, was sophomore offensive guard Alex Anderson, who subbed in for injured senior Kent Perkins.
Entering his third year in the program, the Louisiana native who was reportedly close to transferring in the spring of 2015 made his first career appearance and held his own.
Gilbert commended him for his strong fall camp that landed him on the depth chart and for his preparation — he was ready to go in and contribute when his number got called.
After former offensive guard Sedrick Flowers criticized Marcus Hutchins for not being prepared last season, that’s a heartening development and a good sign for the depth of the offensive line, as Anderson didn’t look like a player who would ever contribute for the ‘Horns as recently as the start of fall camp.
The ability of Buechele to make effective pre-snap adjustments is also big for the offense, as Gilbert said that his young quarterback got Texas into the right plays when making those checks.
The coaches may even need to allow Buechele to run a little bit more, as he was discouraged by the coaches from leaving the pocket and looking to make plays with his feet against Notre Dame, though he did have several important scrambles late.
Like Buechele, Gilbert quickly gained a reputation with the freshman — and other players, presumably — for his own calm demeanor on the sideline. So not only does the offensive coordinator save time in relaying plays because he calls them himself from down on the field, he also has a chance to interact with his players during the game and help influence their poise.
Though it was only one game, the young coordinator who is "like a bro" did everything he could to prove that he’s the right person to ensure that Charlie Strong remains the head coach in Austin and the ‘Horns remain on the national stage after returning on Sunday.
So far so good.