"Really, it's the same decision we made when we recruited Vince (Young), just the flip side of it," said offensive coordinator Greg Davis. "When Vince came out, we thought he was the best quarterback in the state. We knew his style was a little bit different than what we had been doing. But at the same time we felt like we should recruit him."
The best quarterback in the state. That became the recruiting metric just a few years later when Texas coaches were deciding between a lanky pocket passer from Lake Travis and an explosive runner from Cypress Ridge. The coaches picked Garrett Gilbert based on that same qualification.
"We thought he was the best quarterback in the state and we knew that he would not be a zone read guy," Davis said. "I do think there's more plays in his feet than we've gotten through this point in the season."
The choice to move away from the zone read, a play that was effective for both Young and successor Colt McCoy, was largely an afterthought.
For Texas to recruit a player, that player must go through several checkpoints. First, the coach recruiting his area has to sign off on the recruit. Then, the player must be approved by his potential position coach. Next up is the coordinator. And finally, Texas head coach Mack Brown must give his stamp of approval.
In the case of Gilbert's recruitment, those checkpoints were easy to navigate. Davis was Gilbert's area coach. He also serves as the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, meaning that after his approval, the only one needed was Brown's.
"There wasn't a big long philosophical conversation," Davis said. "It was more we think this guy is real good, let's go recruit him."
In the interest of balance, it should be noted that the debate of whether to recruit a quarterback to fit a system or whether to build the system around the quarterback is far from resolved. Teams that have the option of pulling in one of the top few quarterbacks in the country, like Texas, Ohio State, have sided with the latter. Other explosive offenses over the 2000s, from passing systems like USC and Texas Tech to running systems like West Virginia/Michigan and Oregon, have opted for a more systemized approach to recruiting.
And certainly, history supports both sides of the debate. Texas thrived by molding its system to a superb talent in Young, as Virginia Tech did with Michael Vick. Nebraska dominated the 1990s with a series of run-first, run-second, run-third and pass-only-when-absolutely-necessary quarterbacks. Texas Tech lit up scoreboards in the 2000s with a series of quarterbacks who could be timed with sundials.
There also isn't any evidence to suggest that Shepard would have been the answer, though he certainly has demonstrated his ability as a runner in Death Valley. He has carried the ball 68 times for 440 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. One of LSU's best athletes — Shepard has the best vertical leap and broad jump on the Tigers' team, while running a 4.36 40-yard dash — he has broken two plays longer in his 68 rushes than Gilbert's longest pass in 246 attempts.
Any time a team shifts its offensive focus, there's a question of how, and if, that transition will dent the offense in the short term. At the same time, any short-term struggles are often validated by longer term success.
"We don't ever want to box ourselves into a philosophical position that we can't go back to (a formation like) the I, if that presents itself at some point," Davis said. "We want to always be able to do what our players can do."
At the same time, it's worth noting that Texas hasn't changed most of its concepts. Texas is still primarily a zone running team (though without the read). And the passing game is still largely built around the two-man concepts that Texas has used from 1998-on.
As for the Gilbert-Shepard debate, or in a broader sense the move from a mobile quarterback to a pocket passer debate, it's one that likely will never be settled. There's just no way to know which quarterback would have been better suited for Texas's needs. And though it's exciting to watch teams like Oregon and Nebraska blow up the scoreboard at times, whether the Longhorns would be able to do the same with a mobile quarterback isn't certain.
Just be sure of one thing: when it comes time to make a quarterback recruiting decision, the Texas staff will pick the player they feel is the best at the position … regardless of his specialty.