UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- Garrett Gilbert admits his first seven games at SMU last fall were a learning experience. In those starts, the Mustangs went 3-4 as Gilbert threw 13 interceptions and 11 touchdowns, including a five-interception performance in a 24-16 loss to crosstown rival TCU on Sept. 29, 2012.
However, in SMU's final six games of 2012, the former University of Texas signal caller was 4-2 as a starter and while he only threw four touchdown passes during that stretch, he also threw only two interceptions the rest of the way in a campaign which ended with the Ponies dispatching Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl, SMU's second straight year to win a bowl game.
And no one on the Hilltop was happier to see Gilbert find his comfort zone late last season than Mustangs head coach June Jones and he expects that momentum to continue into his starting QB's senior season.
"I think his expectations on himself were pretty high. He's got more confidence. He understands what we're doing more and I think it'll show up earlier this year," Jones said. "I think it really only showed up, his competitiveness, and really threw the ball more accurately toward the end of the season. So, I think that'll play out and hopefully he'll just start where he left off."
Gilbert knows he has grown by leaps and bounds over the past year and even though no one can truly how immense the strides he has made since joining the Ponies prior to last season are, he is well aware of how much he has progressed under center since making his SMU debut at Baylor last September.
"I don't know if there's a number to measure it. Quite honestly, it was very drastic though, just the comfort level that I had within the offense," he said. "I feel much better today in this offense than I did back then. The reason for that is improving timing with receivers, putting in some work in the off-season. Our receivers did a great job this off-season of getting out every day and putting in extra work, running extra routes, doing seven-on-seven, that type of thing. So, we put in the time and we feel like we're in a good spot offensively."
At this time a year ago, Gilbert's primary concern was learning the ins and outs of Jones' Run-and-Shoot offense as well as getting to know the tendencies and preferences of his new teammates. But now that he has a year of experience under his belt at SMU, he says it feels good to now spend his time fine tuning minor details associated with the Pony offense instead of having to learn the system like he was doing last year.
In the off-season, SMU hired Hal Mumme, architect of the vaunted Air Raid offense that was popularized by programs like Kentucky and Texas Tech to be the Mustangs' new offensive coordinator. And despite his reputation as the designer of one of the most high-powered and innovative offenses of recent history, Mumme isn't about to come in and revamp an offense that has delivered some pretty solid results since Jones was hired to turn things around in 2008.
"Obviously, Coach Mumme and Coach Jones have both been successful in terms of coaching offensive football for a long time. We're not here trying to reinvent the wheel," Gilbert said. "We're meshing two things that have worked very well over the past 20 to 30 years to have an offense that is able to attack defenses in a number of different ways."
Not only has the former UT starter been a true student of the game between the lines, but he's also been quite the student away from the game as well. Gilbert had already completed his graduate degree at Texas before he ever arrived at SMU. So, since he's been on the Hilltop, he's been working on a graduate degree in Liberal Studies, a degree which he thinks he should complete either this semester or next.
Something else helping to keep his comfort level pretty high at SMU is the fact that the Mustangs return most of their top receivers from last fall, a group that includes last year's top pass catcher Jeremy Johnson, Der'rikk Thompson, the Ponies' third leading receiver in 2012, and Keenan Holman, a senior looking to finish his career out on a high note.
Gilbert has been working his receivers for much of the past two off-seasons and they definitely have a great feel for what each other are going to go in a given situation as well as where they are going to be on the field.
"Absolutely, again we have a very good group of veteran receivers that a lot of which have played in the past two years and have really developed themselves as really reliable targets for myself or J.J. McDermott or Kyle Padron even," he said. "And so, we feel like we're in a good spot receiver wise."
He started his college career in the Big 12 as a freshman at Texas and also played for the Longhorns as a sophomore. Gilbert then played in Conference USA last season at SMU but this year sees the Mustangs make the move to the American Athletic Conference, a newly-created league that has a BCS bowl berth that belonged to the Big East Conference.
Gilbert is clearly looking forward to facing some different opponents in the American as the new league has been dubbed, but he and his teammates are also looking forward to the possibility of ending the season with the ultimate prize-a berth in a BCS bowl.
"It's going to be a lot of fun. First of all, being in a conference where a reward for winning your conference at the end of the year is a BCS game is really exciting for us. We have the correct attitude as a team and our goal going into each week is to go 1-0," Gilbert said. "Secondly, getting to play some new opponents is just a lot of fun. I'm excited about going up to the Northeast, seeing some of those teams-Rutgers, UConn, playing that type of opponent, Temple. We're real excited about that."