"People say leadership is a lot of different things, but when it comes down to it, it is a really abstract term that has a different meaning to everyone. I think guys want to follow the guy who is going to put them in the endzone. That is my goal."
-- Sophomore quarterback David Ash during fall camp
Consider the task of scoring touchdowns achieved -- Ash helms an offense tied for sixth in the country in scoring at 44.4 points per game, ahead of notable offenses like Texas Tech and West Virginia.
More than that, the Longhorns have finally moved out of a two-year redzone touchdown-scoring drought, finding the endzone on more than 80% of such possessions. Full credit for that achievement is spread out, and the running game deserves much of it, but it's not a total coincidence that stability at the quarterback position for the first time since 2009 has helped spark the best redzone attack in that stretch.
An explanation was in the offing from Ash on Monday:
Well, I think we've prepared better. I mean, it's something that we really concentrated on after last season when we were really terrible in the red zone. All through spring, all through the summer, we did a lot of red zone seven-on-seven, and all through camp we've concentrated on red zone. So I think through that we've become a better red zone football team
Ash is leading his team to touchdowns, fulfilling what he views, correctly, as the major requirement of leadership.
Other aspects of leadership that get thrown about are accountability and toughness, and Ash is proving that he has plenty of both as well.
The toughness showed as Ash stood tall in the pocket against Oklahoma, taking hit after hit, but still delivering throws downfield to the best of his ability, then getting back up and doing it again. The gnarly wrist injury that he suffered didn't even keep him out of practice the following day as speculation swirled that he might miss significant time. By Monday, he was termed as good to go against Baylor and showed no ill effects.
The accountability was on display after the Oklahoma game, when Ash accepted blame for not getting his team ready to play.
For other players, though, Ash will do his best to protect them. As good as junior wide receiver Mike Davis has been getting himself back on track this season, he's still had some occasional drop issues.
How has Ash responded?
By telling his wide receiver that he will never give up on him ($):
I never will. He's worked hard and he deserves to get the ball.
The confidence of the quarterback surely buoys the confidence of the receiver, who can be hard on himself at times:
When Mike makes mistakes it's not like he doesn't care. It bothers him. That shows a lot about him and his expectations for himself.
Davis deserves a great deal of credit for his own advancements, but it seems that Ash does as well. Now, instead of folding as he did last season, Davis is rebounding to make plays, as he did against Oklahoma State and Baylor after dropped passes.
Some see good leaders at the quarterback position being the rah-rah guys. The media loves speeches like the one Tim Tebow gave several years ago when he vowed that the Gators wouldn't lose again. Fans question the quarterbacks who don't provide the easy evidence of their impact on their teammates.
Those speeches aren't in the nature of the low-key Ash, but it may be just as well. After all, being a yeller doesn't always work with other players, who can start tuning those type of displays out if they happen too frequently and without back up on the field. In fact, it may be happening with the defense right now.
After the Oklahoma State game that included those two monumental throws on the final drive, Ash earned praise from his coaches for his unflappable demeanor, for his poise.
They were moments that he believed helped further pull the offense together:
The thing about an emotional win like that, all the hard work you put with your team throughout the summer; seven-on-sevens, off-season workouts, it pays off in the final seconds of the game in a highly emotional, hostile environment. [It] really unites you as a group. I thought that was pretty cool.
If Ash's teammates were simply ready to believe at that moment, those two plays, and the drive overall, made believers out of them, as it did out of many fans.
In those moments, it was the steadiness of Ash that stood out to his head coach:
He's the same all the time. I'd stick my head in the huddle and tell him, 'Let's pick it up.' And he'd look at me with the same look and say, 'We got this coach.'
In other words, the trait that was once the limiting factor in his growth -- his lack of vocal and demonstrative leadership, those media-made sound bites -- has now become a strength, a pillar on which the offense rests.
That steadiness is something that defines him as person, and it has a positive impact on the field:
That's a part of life is learning to be the same person week in and week out. Getting better and then staying that way. We need to be consistent with what we did last week [during] this week and then the rest of the season.
A man of deep faith, it's something that sustains him through adversity, and may be a major factor in his perspective, which was on full display after the Ole Miss game:
I played good last week. Before last week, I don't think there was anybody who liked me. Now everybody likes me. In the future, I know there will be times when people don't like me and there will be times when they like me. They'll be analyzing every move I make.
Whentalks about the negativity that surrounds the program after losses, and even after some wins, he seems to be passing judgment on the reality of the situation -- there's an element of intolerance there from Brown that can be rankling.
From that statement, and the way that Ash delivered it live, with a wry smile of acceptance, of something beyond him that he not only can't control, but something that he doesn't wish to control. The negativity is something that exists outside of him, that he doesn't inculcate or let distract him.
Perhaps it's the contrast to Brown, who can be combative and snippy with the media, but Ash responds to every question with sincerity, doing his best to answer even the more inane, and asking for clarification or help from a media relations person when necessary.
He can be brief when the questions provide the opportunity, he's just not unfairly abrupt. Some questions receive pretty standard responses, others receive answers that show a great deal of self-awareness and honesty. If he devolves into coach-speak, the detours are brief.
The way that he deals with the media may be a small thing. It's also indicative of the larger progress that he's made and those same qualities that he shows in media availabilities on Monday are the same ones that are currently serving him well on the field.
All of a sudden, a player who was supposed to be a game manager coming into the season is now doing much more than that. However, with two interceptions again in the Cotton Bowl, as well as a poor completion percentage hurt by drops, that game represented a setback for the sophomore, his first of the season.
A rebound against Baylor may not mean much since the defense for the Bears is so absolutely atrocious, but it was mostly the same group that Case McCoy threw four interceptions against last year, while Ash avoided any such mistakes.
Overall, Ash is in the conversation as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country -- his passer rating sits at 19th, even after the struggles against Oklahoma, he's averaging 8.4 yards per attempt, tied for 17th nationally, and he's one of only 10 quarterbacks to complete more than 70% of his passes.
All of those numbers are still better than those being produced by Landry Jones at Oklahoma.
In fact, the only real complaint right now with Ash is that he continues to underthrow receivers downfield by that little bit that has kept them from scoring touchdowns at times. Of course, it also means that he doesn't overthrow his receivers in those situations either, something that plenty of quarterbacks around the country do on a week-to-week basis.
Expected to be a game manager this season who would continue to struggle with his leadership with his low-key demeanor, Ash has instead emerged as the unquestioned leader of a high-scoring offense that converts opportunities into touchdowns at a ridiculous rate, avoids interceptions, hits many of the big plays available in the passing game, and has a game-winning drive on the road at the end of the game under his belt.
With basically the entire defense to worry about, the development of Ash, far ahead of what was expected coming into the season, has perhaps been the biggest bright spot of the 2012 season.