Last week, it finally happened. For the first time in what felt like forever, the Texas Longhorns named a starting quarterback -- sophomore David Ash, the presumptive frontrunner throughout the spring and summer after playing the entire Holiday Bowl and receiving first-team reps for that entire time.
The Texas coaching staff didn't exactly make it easy on Ash to earn the starting job, even when it appeared that he had created separation from his competition, junior Case McCoy. Speaking with the media on Monday for the gameweek press conference, head coach Mack Brown shared his thoughts on where Ash is heading into his second season on the 40 Acres:
I would say David is much more confident now than at any time last year, including the Holiday Bowl, or at any time during spring practice. I think the way that [Ash and Case McCoy] have competed throughout the summer and spring practice has really helped. Because until we announced it last week, neither young guy knew who would start. It's pressed both of them to handle pressure. It's pressed both of them to become leaders for this football team so they can reach out to the guys. And everybody leads differently. Case has always been very accurate. I've never seen David as accurate as he's been the last two times out, so hopefully we'll see that Saturday night.
Brown seems to believe that the competition throughout the summer achieved the objective of lighting a fire under Ash and keeping him hungry. Given that he's actually been around the team for fall camp, while the rest of us have been consigned to brief glimpses of the Longhorn Network, if that, it's hard to doubt Brown when he says that his plan worked out.
It's also the case that confidence is mostly one of those intangibles, something of a cliche, a "you-know-it-when-you-see-it" type of deal. But accuracy? That's tangible, and it was one of the greatest weaknesses that Ash had last season. Improving in that area was one of the major points of emphasis with him.
Naming Ash the starter was a major relief for fans hoping to avoid another season of quarterback controversy with both Ash and McCoy shuttling on and off the field, but Brown said it hasn't led to more continuity on the practice field for Texas:
No, but I'm seeing more continuity in the offense because it's our second year. And the coaches are more comfortable with what we want to get done, because now they know what the players can do. And as far as the other, everybody practices a second team quarterback. Some people won't announce a quarterback until Saturday. But the players understand. They see practice every day. I think the drama of who is going to start at one position is more a public drama than it is private. I mean players that see it every day, they have got a feel of what's going to happen. And they know both guys are good players and that both guys can play. They understand that we make those decisions.
Still the type of thing that Brown was saying earlier in fall camp, but now at least those comments can be taken as a positive -- McCoy should be a solid back-up, even if he would be a mediocre starter.
Back to Ash, though -- confidence and accuracy are both nice, but everyone loves to talk about leadership at the quarterback position. Back at the start of fall camp, Ash had this to say on the subject:
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.
Reports out of practice indicate that Ash has done a reasonable job of that, even against a stout first-team defense. There's no doubt that he was correct in assuming that scoring touchdowns is the best form of leadership for a quarterback, but the two things that earned him the job were his ability to protect the football (only a tipped pass interceptions in scrimmage this fall) and his improved accuracy, as noted by Mack Brown on Monday.
All those things have helped him grow as a leader, but he's still a guy who believes in primarily leading by example ($), according to Orangebloods:
For me, it's just doing my job day in and day out. It's coming out with a competitive attitude, ready to practice hard and show my team the way a championship team prepares every day. Sometimes you have to talk, and I do when the situation calls for it. But mostly it's just bringing a presence into the huddle, acting like you know what you're doing and inspiring confidence in your teammates.
To some extent, it's also about celebrating successes with your teammates, consolidating that confidence generated by making big plays. Mack Brown has seen some evidence of that recently from Ash:
There was a touchdown pass Thursday night, and last year, I'd tell David to go congratulate his offensive linemen for the protection and say, 'It's not just about you.'
And before I could say anything the other night, he was running down to congratulate all the linemen and the receiver who caught the touchdown.
I think he's made significant progress in that area. In the dressing room before the scrimmage last Thursday, he was over there telling the offensive linemen to enjoy themselves and play well.
Ash will never be a "rah-rah" guy like McCoy and he doesn't have to be. As Scipio Tex noted at the start of fall camp, all that stuff gets overplayed at a bottom-line position:
Leadership does exist in and of itself as a natural quality and my intent is not to suggest otherwise, but QBs who keep taking their teams into the end zone tend to find themselves imbued with tremendous leadership attributes. After the fact. And their dominant personality trait is generally offered as the reason for their deficit or abundance of leadership. That's the stuff of horoscopes, not analysis. Leadership is nothing more mystical than the confidence you inspire in your teammates. And that confidence usually stems from your play on the field.
It's all about scoring touchdowns. Of course, that can't happen nearly as often if Ash is turning the ball over consistently, the major issue last year, along with his at-times shoddy accuracy.
So the focus on protecting the football continues for Ash, as it will continue indefinitely. He admitted on the opening day of fall practice that he was trying to hit windows that were too small last year. That he was a bit of a gunslinger, an attribute that he got away with in high school because of his arm strength.
Pressed to discuss his specific improvements, Ash did cite his decision making:
Decision making, no doubt. They say in the NFL, accuracy and decision making are the two most important qualities, and for me, decision making was a thing that I had to improve on a lot. Understanding situations, understanding that you don't always have to make the big play. Sometimes you can just get it into the right guys' hands, and they can make the play for you. So for me, decision making is what I really had to improve.
The thought here with Ash has always been that repetitions and an increased comfort level would begin helping to elevate that part of his game. It's happening.
As a result, he's not headed into the Wyoming game looking to force the issue or "make things happen":
Well, that would be a dangerous attitude to have going into the game, because if I get emotional and try to force things to happen, that are good, trying to make the big play, that could really hurt me. So I'm just going to go into this game with the attitude that I'm going to take what they give me.
Those words were echoed by his head coach:
When we won the turnover ratio last year, we won the game. So understand that as we start the season this week. He's dropping the ball off so much better. He's not forcing it. And that's the confidence of not trying to win the game every play. Trust your other players. Throw it to a back in the flat, and he may score. Major (Applewhite) made a living dropping the ball down. And I think David's getting that concept.
Recognize the windows that are available, recognize the windows that are closed, don't force throws into the small ones, and stay ahead of the chains. It sounds simple, but for an overloaded young quarterback trying to make something happen, it's not as simple as it sounds when everything is happening so quickly. That was David Ash last year.
But just how much of a leash does Ash have? Brown weighed in:
No one's talking about jerking David if the first drive doesn't go well.
Except for all the Case McCoy fanboys on Twitter after Ash's first incompletion. Sadly, this will happen on my timeline.
Let's go back and talk about confidence some more, both the confidence that Ash has in himself and the confidence that his teammates have in him.
When senior wide receiver Marquise Goodwin was asked on Monday about his confidence in his starting quarterback, he obviously wasn't going to trash his signal caller, but he did express some belief:
I'm very confident. He's done an exceptional job out there, both he and Case McCoy. Whoever fills in that role, whoever assumes that role, is definitely prepared for the job.
With Ash being named the starter, it certainly looks like he will be the guy, but If something happens with him, Goodwin believes that McCoy can come into the game and make a difference:
Like I said, they are both capable of starting. They both go out there and work hard every day. They are both out there grinding, making plays in practice, studying film. They are competing for that job every day, all day. Even when they are sleeping, they are competing with each other. So I guess it's really Coach's decision who goes out there to play to start. But, you know, they are definitely both capable of being the man. So just really excited to see what he'll do September 1.
Ash may be the starter, but is he the better sleeper? I'm thinking that McCoy's intangibles and moxie (MOXIE!!!11!) could give him the edge there.
Starting guard Trey Hopkins didn't share any thoughts on the sleeping competition, but he did say that Ash is commanding the huddle better:
I love David Ash's confidence that he brings to the team. He stepped up a lot being young last year, but now he's coming in with great conviction in everything he does. He makes sure that we know what we are doing, and he makes sure that we know that he knows what he's doing. And that confidence just trickles down to the rest of the offense and makes us better in the game that we have to run. Definitely it's crazy, because coming in as such a young guy last year and not really knowing, just being an 18-year-old kid trying to lead 22, 23-year-old grown men and now he's coming in and stepping up and saying, "Hey, this is my huddle, this is my offense and we are going to run it like I'm going to run it." And that's what he's doing.
Even if Ash is much more confident than he was, he's also still the humble, small-town kid at heart that he has always been:
First of all, I'm just thankful that my teammates and coaches have really pushed me and coached me well. My teammates have stepped their game up and that's really helped me in the end, because when things work, it makes me look good. Most quarterbacks will tell you, when your teammates are doing well, it makes you look good. And so for sure that's a big part of it, and the improvement of my teammates. I'm thankful just for the opportunity. Going to do my best, compete as hard as I can and thank God that he has given me this opportunity and just try to use it to give Him the glory.
The upside for this team over the next two years is extraordinarily dependent on how well David Ash can play. He still has a ton left to prove on the field, but all the indications are trending in a positive direction.
There's a new David Ash this year. More confident, more accurate, more risk-averse. More comfortable commanding the huddle, interacting with his teammates. This new version of David Ash? Much closer to achieving his significant potential. And, therefore, helping the Longhorns recover from the nightmare of 13-12.