POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 23, 2012
Garrett Gilbert processed a lot of information this fall while adapting to SMU's run-and-shoot system.
Then again, he already had experience cramming a daunting amount of study into one semester.
After three years as a quarterback at Texas — which included a prominent appearance in the BCS championship game against Alabama as a freshman — Gilbert was seeking a fresh start entering the spring. But he had to complete his undergraduate work before transferring without sitting out a season and burning a year of eligibility.
So he signed up for nine classes — a course load of 27 credits — in the spring to earn his degree in sports management from Texas and give himself a chance to play right away after enrolling as a graduate student at SMU.
"It was busy, but I knew the reward," Gilbert said. "I had a lot of support from my family and friends in doing that and for what I've been able to do this year it was definitely worth it."
Upon joining the SMU roster in the summer, Gilbert faced another steep learning curve and endured a rough start with the Mustangs. But he converted those tough lessons into a second-half surge that helped SMU (6-6) qualify for Monday's Sheraton Hawaii Bowl against Mountain West Conference co-champion Fresno State (9-3).
"We feel like we've been in playoff, must-win situations for over a month now," Gilbert said after the Mustangs' practice Saturday at Aloha Stadium. "It's been a lot of fun and it's great to see our hard work pay off and have this opportunity."
Gilbert completed 49 percent of his attempts and threw 11 interceptions with seven touchdowns in SMU's 2-4 start this season. Over a 4-2 second half, Gilbert's attempts per game dropped by more than 13 throws, but he played more efficiently in raising his completion rate to 58 percent over that span with just two picks and seven touchdowns. He went the final five games without throwing an interception, a stretch of 126 attempts entering the bowl game.
He's also rushed for seven touchdowns, the last a 74-yarder in a win over Tulsa to close the regular season and secure the bowl berth.
"The last five games he's played pretty well," SMU head coach June Jones said. "He's still not there because we're not there as a team yet. But he's really been competitive, found ways to get first downs, throwing, running, whatever it takes.
"He's done a good job, and he's taking care of the football. … If you just don't throw the football to (the defense) you've got a chance to win."
Ball security will be at a premium against a Fresno State defense that ranks third in the country with 33 takeaways. The Bulldogs intercepted 20 passes and returned six for touchdowns.
This season's roller coaster is just the latest set of dips and rises in Gilbert's college career. He backed up Colt McCoy as a Texas freshman and was thrust into the BCS title game when McCoy was injured in the first quarter. Gilbert threw two touchdown passes to keep the Longhorns in contention, but was also intercepted four times and Alabama pulled away for a 37-21 win.
"It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life as far as being a football player and being able to face adversity and continue to fight when things aren't going your way," Gilbert said. "Just being able to draw on that has been big for me ever since it happened."
He replaced McCoy as the starter in 2010 and threw 17 interceptions with 10 touchdowns in a 5-7 season. A shoulder injury suffered early last season led to a redshirt year, and he sought a change for his second shot at his junior year.
He found it at SMU, and the undulations he's endured helped shape his outlook with one year left with the Mustangs.
"I think they've helped me become the person I am today, not only on the field but off the field, with some of the adversity I faced personally," Gilbert said. "At the same time I feel very blessed to be here at SMU. I can't ask for anything better than being able to play for a staff with Coach Jones and Coach (Dan) Morrison and being able to work with (graduate assistant and former Hawaii quarterback) Timmy Chang and learning a lot from him has been awesome."