AUSTIN, Texas – When Garrett Gilbert's big moment came, he nearly panicked.
He couldn't find his helmet.
Just minutes into last season's BCS championship game against Alabama, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy came staggering over to the sideline, a nerve injury leaving his right arm hanging limp like a wet noodle.
Gilbert, McCoy's freshman backup, was on the spot. He had to find that helmet. You can't play tackle football without one.
His frantic search interrupted a defensive huddle. Luckily, Texas had called time out, giving him more time to look.
Gilbert finally found it tucked under the bench near the 50-yard line. He strapped it on and ran onto the field, stepping into the brightest spotlight possible.
The rest, he says, is still pretty much a blur. And not a pretty one. Gilbert had five turnovers and Texas lost 37-21.
"It leaves a bitter taste," said Gilbert, now the Longhorns' sophomore starter. "It was tough."
But there were bright spots, too. Two second-half touchdown passes pulled Texas within 24-21 late in the game. He read defenses. He spoke in calm tones to his teammates and offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
Texas lost, but the Longhorns were watching him grow up.
The BCS championship game was supposed to be McCoy's coronation, not Gilbert's national debut.
But coach Mack Brown had signed one of the nation's top high school recruits fully expecting him to take over when the record-setting McCoy moved on to the NFL. And now Gilbert steps into a role he seems to have been groomed for his entire young life.
The son of former University of California quarterback and career NFL backup Gale Gilbert, Garrett Gilbert was a high-school All-American who won two Texas state championships. Gilbert and USC's Matt Barkley were the two highest-rated quarterbacks when they signed in 2009. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Gilbert has the size and strong arm any team would covet.
His background and easygoing style with the media are similar to former Longhorns quarterback Chris Simms, the son of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Phil Simms.
Chris Simms arrived at Texas in 1999 and immediately shouldered expectations of winning a national championship, or at least a Big 12 title. He led Texas to consecutive 11-win seasons in 2001-2002 but couldn't beat Oklahoma and didn't deliver a championship.
Simms struggled to earn the full support of Longhorns fans, partly because he was given the starting role over the popular Major Applewhite, now the Longhorns' running backs coach.
Gilbert has faced no such controversy. As a freshman, he quickly rose to No. 2 on the depth chart, spending last season studying McCoy, who won an NCAA record 45 games as a starter. Gilbert played in 10 games, most of it mop-up duty in blowouts against the likes of Texas-El Paso.
"I still feel like I have a bit to prove," Gilbert said. "I haven't won a game yet ... I'm not Colt. I just have to be my own player."
He never expected to do more than watch and cheer against Alabama. Brown recalled how Gilbert casually poached some of the steak the starters weren't eating in their pre-game meals.
"You can always tell the guys that say, 'Can I get some of your steak?' aren't going to play," Brown said. "When I said, 'Garrett, get your helmet, his eyes were as big as silver dollars.
"But it was obvious in the second half that he relaxed and played much better ... And I do think his presence in the national championship game gave him instant credibility with the older kids."
By the end of that game, Texas fans could see their future. And it wasn't long before they started talking about how the experience would steel Gilbert for the challenges to come, games like the annual Texas-Oklahoma game in Dallas.
Slow down, Gilbert says. Let's not make a career out of one half of a loss.
"Nothing will compare to what happened, but I'll still get anxious and still get excited about playing in a game," he said. "The day I don't ... is the day I should probably hang it up."
What the Longhorns want to see now is leadership. After his freshman season, Gilbert knew the playbook and could make all the throws. Growing into a vocal leader was not so easy.
At times, his teammates have drawn it out of him. Texas has informal summer workouts with the quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs. The workouts can get pretty heated and cornerbacks Aaron Williams and Chykie Brown aimed a steady barrage of trash talk at Gilbert all summer.
"We had to get Garrett out of his shell," Chykie Brown said.
Gilbert stood his ground. Sometimes, he fired back.
"He's starting to be a more vocal leader, (to) become the leader and become the commander," senior wide receiver John Chiles said.
Gilbert is also the only Texas quarterback with any experience.
The day before the Longhorns reported for training camp, top backup Sherrod Harris, a senior, left the team. That means freshmen Case McCoy (Colt's younger brother) and Connor Wood are battling for the No. 2 spot, far from ready to play if Gilbert gets hurt.
The duel is one that Brown calls "urgent." As the national championship game proved, the No. 2 quarterback has to be ready to play at a moment's notice.
Gilbert's first lesson for the freshmen was simple: Always know where your helmet is.
"Don't wear a baseball cap on the sideline," Gilbert said.