In the last two seasons, Texas quarterbacks have come under increasing scrutiny as the largest impediment to Texas making the "next step" as a football team. This season, with a strong running game complementing a stout defense, the quarterback play must improve for Texas to achieve anything like a BCS bowl game.
As part of a season-long series, I'll track the quarterback performances from week-to-week, with an eye towards their effectiveness within the offense as a whole -- realistically, no one on the Texas roster is going to be an All-American or even All-Big 12. If quarterback play at Texas this season goes from a net negative (as in the past two years) to a net neutral, I personally would be happy. Let's take a look at week one after the jump.
The facts. First of all, whatever quarterback controversy that exists behind the scenes has not made itself evident on the field. David Ash started the game and threw every pass (except for the obligatory Shipley attempt), as anticipated. Ash threw for 156 yards completing 74 percent of his passes (20/27), and importantly threw no interceptions. In fact, his performance was remarkably similar to that in the Holiday Bowl game against California, where Ash completed 14 of 23 passes for 142 yards and one TD (again, no picks). Although Ash avoided an interception, he did fumble one snap that was barely, barely off-target. Lastly, although Case McCoy played, it was late into Mack Brown Garbage Time (TM) during which no quarterback is allowed to pass the ball, and first downs are to be gained apologetically.
Poise and decision-making. In re-watching the game today, one thing that was clear to me was that Ash has significantly matured. Rarely was there a forced throw into double coverage, and even to my untrained eye it was clear that Ash is scanning the field, looking at his checkdown when necessary. Thrice, Ash chose to throw the ball away when there wasn't a receiver open, once even on third down. Now clearly, a completion is preferable, but Ash did appear to force things a bit last season -- it's good to see that he's picking his spots a bit better. If there was one criticism of his decision-making, Ash appeared to bail from the pocket sooner than necessary at times, trying to force a run when there wasn't a clear running lane available. To my eye, though, his floor has officially been set to "game managing quarterback", and that is not an insult.
Execution. It is something of an oddity that Ash completed over 75% percent of his passes, threw the ball nearly 30 times, and yet only amassed 150 yards. This is the kind of offense only a Greg Davis could love (okay, I promise, I'm done with my GD digs after this one). What gives? Essentially, it is that just five of Ash's 20 completions were for 10 yards or more, and none were for over 20 yards. The remaining fifteen amassed fewer than 100 yards. This isn't to say that Texas did not attempt deep passes; after two viewings of the game, I applaud Harsin's commitment to the deep ball. The fact is that Ash missed on many of his deep pass attempts -- this has to change. Texas' rushing attack must be complemented by a credible deep threat, and surely this will be a focus for Harsin and Ash in the future. In weeks to come, it will be worth keeping an eye on Ash's accuracy on the deep ball.
Moving forward. Longhorn fans would be forgiven for having unrealistic expectations of their quarterbacks. After running an offense predicated on superlative quarterback play for the better part of a decade, it is a major philosophical shift to lean more heavily on the running game. To that end, our quarterbacks at least cannot squander possessions with turnovers, and must present at least a threat to beat a defense over the top. It will be interesting to watch the maturation of presumptive starter David Ash over the course of this season in this regard. More generally, based on his performance in the bowl game, and his similar performance in week one, I see a positive trajectory in his play relative to last season. And while nothing in his week one stat line convinced me that he is (right now) much more than a game manager, nothing in that game convinced me that he is much less. We have two more weeks of preseason play until we will require much more from our offense. Let's make the most of them.