AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — It's been a long time since the Texas Longhorns had to break in a new starting quarterback.
The Longhorns begin spring practice on Friday and Garrett Gilbert will formally step in to replace Colt McCoy. Coach Mack Brown is already saying he expects Gilbert to be "really good."
It's easy to see why.
Less than two months ago, Gilbert, a former national high school player of the year, was pressed into duty five plays into the BCS championship game against Alabama when McCoy went down with an injury.
Gilbert, still a freshman with hardly any college experience, struggled early as Texas fell behind 24-6. But he rallied the Longhorns with two touchdown passes in the second half before two late scores sealed the Crimson Tide's 37-21 win.
Brown said tlaying on the biggest stage possible prepared Gilbert to take over the Texas offense.
"If he had not played in that game and had not played well like he did ... I think the team probably wouldn't know what they had going into the spring. Now they know. This guy can be good," Brown said.
"We hope he gets back on that stage. He'll never be on a bigger one," Brown said.
Despite being thrust into a difficult situation and one few would have expected him to win, Brown said, Gilbert was hurt by the loss. Gilbert was 15-of-40 passing with four interceptions, but those numbers don't show how much better he played in the second half when Texas mounted its comeback.
"I think if he was fragile, that would hurt him. He'll use that game to motivate himself and make himself better," Brown said.
McCoy is at the NFL combine this week after starting every game for Texas the last four seasons. He was twice a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and set an NCAA record for starting quarterbacks with 45 career victories.
Gilbert played in 10 games last season, completing 30 of 66 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns. His father, Gale Gilbert, played quarterback in the NFL for eight seasons and is the only player in league history to be a member of five straight Super Bowl teams, four with Buffalo and one with San Diego from 1991-95.
At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Garrett Gilbert is bigger than McCoy and may have a stronger arm, but is not as likely to run as often. McCoy led Texas in rushing in 2008.
Brown compared Gilbert taking over for McCoy to when McCoy followed Vince Young after the 2005 national championship season.
"Garrett will be different than Colt. Colt was very different than Vince," Brown said.
Back then, McCoy had to fight off a challenge from Jevan Snead, who transferred to Mississippi after the 2006 season. Gilbert doesn't have a challenger as the starter. Senior backup Sherrod Harris will be trying to hold off freshmen Case McCoy (Colt's younger brother) and Connor Wood for the No. 2 spot.
Texas had several other key losses.
Safety Earl Thomas, left for the NFL after his sophomore season. Defensive linemen Lamarr Houston and Sergio Kindle have finished their eligibility. On offense, top wide receiver and punt returner Jordan Shipley has graduated and the Longhorns lose three starters from the offensive line.
The Longhorns signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country on Feb. 3 and Brown warned his returning players that the incoming freshmen could challenge for spots in the lineup by the 2010 season opener Sept. 4 at Rice.
"We've told the older guys, 'Get your spot this spring or we'll look for other guys in the fall. You've got your chance right now,'" Brown said.