With expectations once again reaching typically high levels for the Texas Longhorns football program, many fans were left feeling less than impressed with the 37-17 victory over the Wyoming Cowboys on Saturday night, even with all the normal first game caveats applying.
In particular, a segment of the fanbase still isn't sold on sophomore quarterback David Ash, even after completing 20-of-27 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown. Apparently the fact that he was never particularly close to throwing an interception isn't enough. Or the fact that he threw two passes away and had three more hit receivers in the hands. Apparently only having two poor throws that didn't have much of a chance of being caught isn't enough.
High standards, those, especially for a guy who is still adjusting to being the starting quarterback.
Fortunately, both Ash and co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin provided some perspective over the last two days through which to view the sophomore's performance.
According to Harsin's grading scale, Ash received a "solid winnable" grade -- essentially what the narrative has held Ash needs to do to win this season. Yes, the big plays are important, but remember that protecting the football and being accurate are the two keys for Harsin. No interceptions. Accuracy that was more than adequate until compared to someone like Colt McCoy. This is what the coaches want.
Harsin reiterated that point on Tuesday:
I thought [sophomore QB] David [Ash] played really well. I thought he played smart. The biggest thing when we talk to our quarterbacks is, "Let's hang on to the football."
Hang on to it he did, except for the fumbled snap, for which he took responsibility on Monday before noting how simple of an action it is:
The fumbled snap, that can't happen. But that's just catch the ball. That's not really a coaching point there, just catch the ball.
Ash apparently added that it's something "that middle school quarterbacks can do." Indeed.
After the game on Friday night, head coach Mack Brown spoke about the tangibles and intangibles that Ash brought to the table:
Confidence. David's confidence was so much better. He hit 20 of 27 [passes] and made some really good decisions. He threw some balls away that he might of tried to force at this time last year. He never panicked. I really just feel like he's got a good presence about him right now.
The talk has always been about the tangibles with Ash -- his size, his arm strength, his ability to spin the football, his running ability, which he didn't really have a chance to show at all against Wyoming. The complaints have always been about the intangibles -- his leadership ability, his presence, his command of the offense (which is sort of a semi-tangible thing).
Wherever one would like to classify command and presence in that spectrum, Ash notably improved in both of those facets, as evidenced by those balls thrown away and the big converted third down on the first scoring drive, in which Ash left a collapsing pocket, remained behind the line of scrimmage, and threw a strike to junior wide receiver Mike Davis to keep the drive alive.
The game is slowing down for him, aided by a situational understanding advanced from last season:
Well, you know, a lot of that comes with understanding the situation you're in. It's situational football. You don't want to force it on third down. You don't want to force it on first down. You want to be able to understand first down, if it's not there, get four yards, play second and six, that's easy. On third down and five, you don't want to try to force the deep ball. You just want to look how can I get five yards. You don't want to get emotional like, "Man, I've only thrown one touchdown this game. I've only done this this game. I want to go for the big ball." All you can think about is how am I going to get this team five yards. And that's the only question.
But he's still staying humble, grounded, and understands what he needs to do to find more success as the season moves along:
The thing is just getting better at doing it each and every week. So that's my goal. There were a few times I understood my job but I didn't do it. And I'm going to, this week, see why. I'm going to fix that.
Talk about fixing mistakes is cheap if players don't truly understand what is was that they were doing wrong. In the case of Ash, it was holding onto the football for too long:
I think for me what I'm working on is not hesitating. There's a couple of times I took a hitch step which threw off the timing which means the ball is going to be late. So for me that's the main thing is trusting my reads, trusting my feet, and getting rid of the ball.
Brown believes that there is an adjustment period for any quarterback in the first game of the season:
A couple of times on the deep balls David could have gotten it out of his hands a little faster. When you don't hit the quarterback in practice, sometimes they have a tendency in ballgames to hold the ball a little bit too long. We think that's one area we can improve this week.
The hope, then, from Brown's perspective, is that Ash will continue to improve in that area with game reps, as the game continues to slow down around him. Given the improvement from Kansas State to the Holiday Bowl to spring practice to the fall and the first game, it's not hard to imagine further improvement from the hard-working and dedicated Ash.
Harsin saw those issues as Ash taking that extra split second to account for every defender to avoid putting the ball in a dangerous place:
He is trying to see things and make sure he is not getting a different look that he didn't expect and someone isn't falling off on one of those deep throws, so he held on to it.
Later, Harsin expanded on that thought:
It comes down to a timing thing and just getting back, trusting what you are seeing and letting it go because those guys are going to be able to get down the field in a hurry and they can outrun your arm quickly. The one thing going in this game for David that we talked about is we are not quite sure coverage-wise how much spin or rotation they might have. He wanted to make sure and see those things. Once you have an opponent on tape, you can start to see that and be more comfortable with it as you practice during the week and as you prepare during the week. Really going into this one, you are taking some shots down the middle of the field and you want to make sure no one is falling off and getting underneath it. He was making sure, and we got behind a little bit on some of those throws and that is what caused the underneath throws and the underthrown balls. That will get better as we prepare better and see what we are going to see on film.
Disguised coverages were an even bigger concern for Texas heading into the Wyoming game since the Pokes had brought on new defensive coordinator Chris Tormey during the offseason, resulting in significant changes to the defense run under head coach Dave Christensen.
But those deep throws were the one significant area for improvement with Ash after the first game. Having already checked off two of the three big question marks entering the season (at least for one game), perhaps it's worthwhile to have a little bit of patience as he continues to refine that aspect of his game.
The question is, how long should Longhorn fans wait? Harsin said it shouldn't be long. As in next weekend against New Mexico:
More this week, because we have an opponent on tape. He will have a chance to prepare for that opponent. He will have a chance to see what they have done, and he will have a chance to practice exactly what we expect them to do. When you do that [you will be ready], and he did that through fall camp. Seeing our defense and seeing the different looks and then seeing the same looks day-in and day-out as well, his anticipation was really good. The ball came out of his hands really good, but he had seen those things and he prepared for those. From this point on that anticipation has to improve and it will. He did it through fall camp, and he will do it from this point on. He will know what he is looking at and what he is looking for going into these games because we will have those opponents on tape.
Dropping that little hitch in Ash's step before delivery? Seeing an opponent on film? Both things that should help Ash start connecting on those deep balls.
If and when he does, this Texas offense is going to really start rolling and the true upside of this team, both this season and going into the potential national championship run in 2013, will start to come into focus. And that is something to be excited about, because the returns through one game were that Ash is much better than he was late in the 2011 conference season and still has plenty of room to grow and improve.