It's yet another sun-drenched day in the paradise known as Austin, Texas.
Yes, the calendar still reads February, but that groundhog definitely saw his shadow weeks ago as spring creeps in on a winter that never was. Birds chirp in the trees and a plane heads overhead, destination unknown.
It's quiet, as the calls for Case McCoy to start at quarterback for the Longhorns fade into ancient history and the mysterious Cult of McCoy disbands, heads hung, the spark of fervor gone from their eyes.
For Texas Longhorns head coach Mack Brown has finally put the weight of his endorsement fully behind junior quarterback David Ash, the starter for much of the 2012 season whose resurgent second-half effort against Oregon State provided some much-needed optimism heading into the long offseason and solidified his spot atop the depth chart.
With McCoy unavailable for the game due to his suspension, it was sink or swim for Ash in the game -- for the first time in his career, he didn't have to look over to the sideline and wonder if he might get pulled after every negative play. The coaching staff had no choice but to let him work through his struggles, and he responded.
One of the first moves that Major Applewhite had made after being elevated to playcalling duties following the departure of former co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to Arkansas State was to declare Ash the starter for the Alamo Bowl, only days after he had missed the game against Kansas State due to the rib injury he suffered against Iowa State and unsuccessfully attempted to play through against TCU.
Last Thursday when opening spring practice with a press conference, Brown noted the play of Ash during the bowl game:
I thought he came back in the latter part of the bowl game, I thought he had a real breakthrough on about three plays with his feet. The play that he scrambled and dived for the first down down to the right side of our bench going in, the quarterback draw that Major called, he dove into the end zone, spiked the ball and had a little emotion there and all the guys rallied around him. And then I thought really, specifically, the play that he scrambled and threw to Johnathan Gray, was a great play, that changed the game. And then he stood right in there and threw deep to Marquise at the end and made that play. So I think we are seeing David Ash as the clearcut starting quarterback going into spring.
The final comment is a significant one from a coach who spent much of last offseason taking about the need to have two quarterbacks ready to play in 2012, a fact that Brown helped perpetuate by giving Ash a short leash in games like Kansas.
And, In fact, the throw to Gray was not entirely different from the play that helped win Johnny Manziel the Heisman against Alabama. Sure, the Beavers are nowhere near the type of defense that the Crimson Tide boasted, but Ash also didn't benefit from fumbling the football to start the play, instead using his strength to avoid a rusher, then his improvisational ability to roll left and make a more difficult throw to Gray than Manziel had to make to Swope.
Brown also took a trip through the narrative of the season for Ash:
I thought David played really well at Ole Miss under some pressure. I thought he played really, really well at Oklahoma State and won a game late which is hard for a young quarterback to do. I thought that was kind of a breakthrough moment for him. We didn't finish West Virginia like we wanted to. We didn't play well at Oklahoma. He had a great game against Baylor, and then he didn't play well at Kansas. He came back and had great game against Iowa State. That's when he got hurt.
Oddly enough, a significant part of the fanbase, and a significant part of the national media as well, seems to have forgotten the Oklahoma State game, which included the two high-pressure throws late in a night game in a hostile environment. Yeah, those type of plays are meaningful.
The Kansas game is still one that allows detractors to point out Ash's poor performance, though Brown wasn't completely sold during the press conference on the narrative that Ash had trouble recovering from poor starts, one that was at least partly buried by the Oregon State performance:
Yes, I think we label things pretty quickly sometimes. He got a slow start at Kansas and did not come out of it, and I think that was a great learning experience for him. We had conversations with him the next week and said, " What's the deal, what happened? You just looked like you were in the fog." I think he gave us an answer that was, "It was something I learned; I didn't come out of it."
More specifically, Ash showed his typical high level of self-awareness following that game when he noted that he was ready to play, but he wasn't prepared to play through adversity, a subtle distinction that had significant repercussions for that game.
But Brown wanted to take responsibility for the TCU performance, taken at the time, with little news of the significance of Ash's injury and just how much practice time he had missed, as another data point in the set suggesting that if Ash struggled early, he would continue to struggle:
TCU, I don't think that one is on him. Like I said, he really showed a lot of courage to play as sore as he was and try to fight through it.
Brown was repeating a point from earlier, when he had said that the TCU game was "on us more than him," referring to the coaching staff.
Indeed, hindsight offers clear perspective in that situation -- McCoy should have been the starter for each of the last two games.
However, Brown also believes that Ash didn't receive the credit he deserved for the season that he had:
Coming out of a year where he's won ten of the last 13 games he's played. He was in the Top 10 in passing efficiency. I really don't think he's gotten near the accolades that he deserves. And I think he has a chance to be really, really good this year.
Brown's stats weren't quite on point -- Ash finished 20th nationally in pass rating in 2013, while finishing near the top 10 in yards per attempt (tied for 13th) and completion percentage (tied for 13th) -- though the overall point stands, even if "accolades" might be a strong word to use with a player who was benched several times by the coaches.
One of the next steps for Ash is improving as a leader, a task made difficult by the cocky McCoy and constant benchings.
The presence of Vince Young on campus this spring may make a difference in that regard -- whatever his other faults, Young was a superlative leader during his time at Texas and could help Ash make significant strides in that regard, especially in being assertive, an area that doesn't always come naturally for the Belton product, who tends to default into lead-by-example mode.
Brown definitely believes that Young has been helping:
Vince [Young] being here as helped him. He's had numerous conversations with Vince about leadership and moving forward. I've talked to him about those conversations. He and Major hit a really good point. I think he's ready to go and he's excited about what we are doing as well.
As much as Young could help Ash, the new-look offense under Applewhite could as well, especially in the area of Ash making plays with his left. The several scramble situations that were called back seem to give Ash confidence in that regard and Applewhite capitalized by starting to run the quarterback. By the time that Ash ran for the touchdown Brown mentioned above and reacted with as much emotion as he's shown at Texas, he was by that time fully in the game and ready to start making plays with his arm, which he did.
So those heavy sounds of silence bespeak the lack of any type of quarterback controversy in Austin, punctuated only by the sounds of an emerging leader at the position, one poised to build on sophomore success with a little assist from a Longhorn legend who knows something about the skill.