How one big move made Texas a threat in the Big 12 once again

Kevin Jairaj/Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert has the quiet demeanor and unquestionable confidence of a frontier cowboy, as well as the Texas drawl that perfectly accompanies that comportment.

He’s cool, in the classic sense — you don’t go from being a high school offensive coordinator to the man tasked with saving Charlie Strong’s job at UT in five years by being affected.

Gilbert’s calmness certainly proved useful amid the chaos that was the Longhorns’ season opener against Notre Dame Sunday.

The back-and-forth of the contest was legendary — this was a haymaker-landing heavyweight battle between two of the best programs in the country.

That fact alone makes the final score irrelevant.

Texas didn’t enter Sunday’s game as one of the best programs in the country — it went into the game with an 11-14 record under Strong and a 41-35 record this decade.

But they sure didn’t look like a mediocre team Sunday.

It’s early, but there’s no way to misinterpret what we saw in the season opener — Texas is back.

You can thank Gilbert for installing something that Strong’s teams have been sorely missing for the last two years: an offense.

It’s amazing it took Strong this long to find the answer — he had seen the answer first-hand, multiple times. At one point, he lived it.

But it’s here now: Texas threw for 280 yards Sunday — nearly double last season’s average output — and rushed for another 237 in the shootout win over the Irish, who themselves boast one of the nation’s best offenses.

This is where Gilbert comes into the picture: He wasn’t just calling plays on the sideline, he was painting a masterpiece — all with an expressionless look on his face.

The best offensive minds in college football have been undone by playing two quarterbacks — you only needed to look to the other side of the field to see that — but not since Dan Mullen rotated Chris Leak and Tim Tebow for Florida has a coach so effectively controlled pace with substitutions at the most important position on the field.

Gilbert knew exactly what he was doing — when Notre Dame’s defense softened, he hit them with Tyrone Swoopes, a 6-foot-4, 255-pound senior quarterback who ran the veer offense Sunday as if he never wanted to throw another pass in his life. He was a running back in a quarterback’s body, and Notre Dame had no answer for his physicality.

Then, when Notre Dame substituted to commit more to the run game, there was true freshman dual-threat quarterback Shane Buechele, looking to hit a receiver over the top on a vertical route or popping one into the belly on a slant.

Together, the punch and counterpunch kept an excellent Notre Dame defense off balance.

Gilbert had that Mullen touch. But it should come as no surprise that Gilbert should work for Strong — he was the defensive coordinator on that title-winning Florida team.

But Gilbert also brought something that Strong had seen up close the last few years as well: Baylor’s Air Raid offense — the one that relegated Texas to second-fiddle in their own state.

The system of Art Briles and the in-game touch of Mullen is quite a potent combination, and Strong has it working for him now.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Well, at first, not Strong.

Entering a season on the brink, the Texas coach knew he wanted to go spread and went out to hire his third coordinator in three years. He was eying Tony Franklin — then the Cal offensive coordinator who is as synonymous with the Air Raid offense as Mike Leach — but that didn’t work out. He reportedly offered TCU’s Sonny Cumbie the job, but he turned it down — who would want to join a ship that was halfway sunk?

Gilbert was not the first choice, and even Strong will admit that. The 38-year-old had just finished his first year at Tulsa — the Golden Hurricane went 6-7 in 2015 — and he had only one year of FBS experience before that, working for Dino Babers — a former Briles protege — at Bowling Green in 2014, having followed Babers there after two years at Eastern Illinois.

Sterlin was well respected in coaching circles — anyone who could be considered Babers’ right-hand man is going to get a good rep — but was he ready for Texas?

Whether it was desperation or clairvoyance, Strong pulled the trigger, knowing his time at Texas rode in the balance.

No wonder he was laughing so hard after the game Sunday.

The Big 12 is wide open this year — that was the case before this weekend, and it is certainly the case now that Oklahoma showed its deficiencies against Houston and TCU looked not-so-great defensively against South Dakota State. But could Texas sneak into the mix for the conference title? It’s one game, but if they can keep running the Baylor offense with 2006 Florida-like efficiency, they might have to set their sights even higher than that.

The Longhorns are back. You can thank Sterlin Gilbert.