Hard work, talent take Gilbert to the top
It's nice to be in Southern California in July, surrounded by the palm trees and Heisman candidates.
The picturesque 80-degree days, the perfect facilities, the endless supply of big-name football players - it all creates the ideal atmosphere for the pigskin paradise known as the EA Sports Elite 11 quarterback camp.
This summer's edition of the Elite 11 included star college QBs like Colt McCoy (Texas), Matthew Stafford (Georgia), Chase Daniel (Missouri) and Mark Sanchez (USC) working as counselors. NFL Pro Bowler Carson Palmer dropped by to take part in some drills and dispense advice. And it was all put on for a group of the top prep signal-callers from the Class of 2009.
For Lake Travis senior Garrett Gilbert, the lone Texan in attendance, the opportunity was extra special due to the presence of McCoy and Stafford. As a Texas commit, Gilbert will be joining McCoy on the Longhorns' sideline next fall, and he enjoyed the opportunity to get to know his future teammate. The presence of Stafford allowed Gilbert to do a little boasting, as his Cavaliers beat Stafford's alma mater, Highland Park, for last season's Class 4A, Division II state title.
How many people can say they have bragging rights over the quarterback of a national championship contender?
"It was pretty funny, we went back and forth talking some trash about it," Gilbert says. "But he said he was at the game and thought I played well."
Clearly, Gilbert's reputation precedes him. But as much fun as he had on the West Coast competing and mingling with the stars, Gilbert never got too comfortable. Sure, he knows how to handle himself around the big names -- that comes naturally when your dad is a former NFL player -- but Gilbert is at his best when he's home in Austin with his Lake Travis teammates.
"We've been together since seventh grade, even longer for a few of us," Gilbert says. "Right now, we're all focused on getting ready for the season and defending our title."
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound signal-caller was integral in leading the Cavaliers to the school's first-ever state crown last year. Not only did he shred Stafford's old school for 357 yards and three scores in the title game, he finished the year with single-season state records for passing yards (4,826) and passing TDs (52).
Gilbert's junior season cemented his place near the top of the quarterback rankings, and he entered his senior season rated the nation's No. 3 QB recruit (and No. 17 recruit overall) in the ESPNU 150.
For many who have watched Gilbert over the years, however, this is exactly where they expected him to end up.
"I could tell during middle school that he could really spin it," says his father, Gale, who played at Cal and then for three NFL teams over 10 years in the late '80s and early '90s. "He's always been able to get the ball to the right spot."
"You could see it from seventh grade on up," adds Jeff Dicus, who was the head coach for five seasons at Lake Travis and is now in his first year at Duncanville. "He was obviously a gifted kid physically and mentally. All the tools were there, it was just a matter of waiting for that opportunity to open up."
Gilbert's opportunity came as a sophomore after the graduation of Todd Reesing, who went on to Kansas and led the Jayhawks on their magical run to a BCS bowl game last year. But Gilbert actually began preparing for his first varsity snap the previous spring as a freshman when he was switched into a football class with many of the returning varsity players. Even as the youngest player in the room, Gilbert was at ease talking football.
"I wanted them all to get to know me as early on as possible," Gilbert says. "I wanted to earn their trust then so we'd be able to get right to it the next season."
By most measures, Gilbert's sophomore season was a success. He threw for 2,859 yards and 29 TDs to lead the Cavs to an 8-2 regular season. But a first-round playoff exit in which he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble haunted Gilbert throughout the offseason.
Driven by his frustration, Gilbert returned for his junior campaign ready to take his game to the next level. And after opening the season 1-1 (with the loss coming to Class 5A Westlake), Lake Travis closed the year with 14 consecutive victories and averaged 40 points per game in that stretch.
"It was unbelievable to watch," Gale says. "Week after week, they just couldn't be stopped."
It would be easy to assume Gilbert has gotten this far simply because of his NFL genes. But that couldn't be further from the truth. He and Dicus spent hours breaking down film together over the past two years, and Gilbert would often be involved in the play-calling process during games. Add to that Gilbert's dedication in the weight room -- especially in rehabbing his right shoulder after offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum -- and his straight-A grades, and it's clear he isn't just coasting along on his abundant natural talent.
"He wants to be the best, and he's not scared to go for it," Dicus says. "There's no question we'll be seeing him on Sundays."
Of course, Gilbert is still destined for plenty of memorable Fridays and Saturdays before then.
Matt Remsberg covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.