There's an abject joy on the face of Texas Longhorns quarterback Case McCoy these days.
Catch him after the Red River Rivalry, wearing the Golden Hat for the first time in the Cotton Bowl, or just simply trotted out for a media availability on Monday, and McCoy's face is lit with the brightest of smiles.
Completely authentic, what the current starting Texas quarterback is emoting is the result of his success -- the comeback win over Iowa State and the monumental destruction of Oklahoma, yet it's also much more than that, much more personal than simply the physical and emotional manifestation of his exploits on the football field.
There's an energy associated with the emotional and spiritual maturation of individuals as they come to a deeper understanding of themselves and the world and their place in it -- the confluence of self-awareness borne of perspective and the centering forces of a spiritual calmness that can at times be transcendent.
McCoy's inner light now bursting forth was not easy to come by, but rather honed in the crucible of on-field and off-field struggles over the last year. In fact, it's rather not a transition, but something of a transformation.
"He's matured a whole lot through all of that," Applewhite said. "Sometimes the bad things that happen to you can mature you. They can humble you beyond belief. He's taken that and made it a positive. There's definitely a peace about him, and a calm about him right now that's beneficial to the way he's been playing."
It's been a long journey for McCoy since he walked off the field at Bill Snyder Stadium in Manhattan just a little more than 10 months ago and then walked out of the post-game press conference after being questioned about his seemingly outsized confidence in his ability that led him to make dangerous throws on out routes, two of which were intercepted.
It was a petulant post-game performance that marked the low point of his Texas career.
Weeks later, after he was removed from the starting role he held against the Wildcats when David Ash returned to health, he was sent home from the Alamo Bowl after the sexual assault allegations that also involved linebacker Jordan Hicks and appeared to imperil his Texas career.
Though no charges were filed, perception of the once-popular McCoy hit its lowest point.
So when the Graham product opted not to participate in summer workouts to take a mission trip to Peru, it wasn't even clear whether he would return to the football team in the fall with David Ash entrenched as the starting quarterback and true freshman Tyrone Swoopes pushing hard for the back-up role after his starring performance in the spring game.
If McCoy was going to be a part of the 2013 Texas football team, at the time that he left on his mission trip, it didn't seem likely to be a significant role at all.
The perfect storm
For McCoy to have one last shot as a Longhorn, it took the hamstring injury to freshman quarterback Swoopes in fall camp that essentially removed him from the competition to back up Ash and the head injury to the starter to allow McCoy the opportunity to play the most extended snaps of his career.
In a matter of months, McCoy went from potentially sitting all season as the third-string quarterback while the Longhorns prepared Swoopes to be the starter to head coach Mack Brown calling the Longhorns Case McCoy's team and noting that it was his turn heading into the tilt against the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl.
In a somewhat shocking development, gone is the reckless, gunslinging nature that led to the proliferation of turnovers and high interception rate that defined his play from the Baylor game in 2011 until that Kansas State game last year.
"That's what I've noticed as he's grown into his senior year," Applewhite said on Monday. "That chip on his shoulder, that edge, would manifest itself in turnovers and aggressiveness. And now it's slowed down a little bit."
Not to the extent that McCoy doesn't make dangerous passes -- there were two against Iowa State that were nearly intercepted and the screen pass against Oklahoma that was returned for a touchdown -- just fewer dangerous passes.
And so Colt's little brother was good enough replacing Ash against Ole Miss with a streamlined game plan that included numerous third-down draws to stress the need to reserve the right to punt and good enough against Kansas State to win the game and so the coaching staff was never forced to seriously consider turning to Swoopes, though the freshman did warm up on the sideline against Iowa State before staying on the sideline.
The turning point
When asked about McCoy's background and his understanding of the game, the Texas coaches often make mention of his upbringing, about his father who was also his coach and growing up watching his older brother lead Jim Ned High School and then the Longhorns during one of the most successful stretches in the storied program's history.
Spoken of in positive terms exclusively, there's also a darker side to that type of environment, the constant exposure to the game, the expectations for McCoy to head down a path chosen for him. Perhaps the lack of agency in his own life was something that needed viewing the game from a distance to gain some much-needed perspective on the importance of something that was as constant in his life as his own family, precisely because it was his family.
Rightfully questioned by many program observers and fans, it seems that the mission trip to Peru undertaken by McCoy resulted in a different person returning to the United States than the one that left.
"That mission made me appreciate how much I love living in this country, and it made me appreciate football," McCoy told Chip Brown of Orangebloods. "I had never been away from it. I realized how much passion I have for football and how much love I have for my teammates."
"I think there was a time when I was kind of going through the motions when it came to football and not relishing the moment I'm living in. No one would ever understand, but that mission has made me a better quarterback, a better teammate and a better leader. I wouldn't change a thing."
And so there a joie de vivre about McCoy's play in a way that can often be true of a soccer player or basketball player, but not so often in the violent game of football. A joy that comes from complete and total immersion in the present.
More significantly, there's a renewed dedication about McCoy, an attention to detail that allows him to get the team into the right running plays at the line of scrimmage. A dedication that has him showing up early and staying late to watch film and spending evenings texting Applewhite about certain coverages that the Texas co-offensive coordinator told Chip Brown led to the type of plays that resulted in the Marcus Johnson wheel route touchdown against Oklahoma.
"He did great job throughout the week," Applewhite said after the game. "He spent a lot of time in the film room, a lot of time understanding (Oklahoma DB) Zack Sanchez and (Oklahoma DB) Aaron Colvin and understanding that (Oklahoma defensive coordinator) Mike Stoops is going to be aggressive and going to play man coverage. That is their strength. We put some things in to get them one-on-one and get some double moves outside for clear throws."
McCoy hit the throw against Johnson and hit another similar throw to Mike Davis on a slant-and-go route for another touchdown, two of the plays that helped make a major difference in the game.
The Oklahoma game presented a tremendous opportunity for the senior to lead his teammates to their first win in the Red River Rivalry since his older brother guided the Horns to the hard-fought and flawed 2009 win in a mostly joyless season burdened and weighed down by expectations.
McCoy had been around to experience each of the losses since then, having fumbled twice in 2011 and then brought on late when the game was already well out of hand in 2012 to find some success against Sooner back ups.
"It was a bit of redemption for him and I'm proud of him," said Major Applewhite after the Oklahoma game. "You're going to struggle in life and things are going to happen. He has fought to get back with his teammates and be a leader and prove himself as a quarterback. I'm proud of him."
McCoy got an assist from some effective game planning from Applewhite, who was able to identify ways of attacking the Oklahoma cornerbacks, perhaps with a little assist from McCoy himself.
"We just felt that they were so good outside -- Colvin and Sanchez are so good outside -- that it is one of those deals that you've got to make their strength their weakness. If they're going to jump routes and sit on things, then we have got to do some things at quarterback to make them bite."
And though McCoy once again left several throws on the field, including two touchdown passes, as he has done in other games this season, Brown sees him as a quarterback developing into a superlative game manager, a term that doesn't always have the most positive connotations, but effectively describes what McCoy has brought to this Texas team.
"What he's done now, not a negative term, he's managed the game better," said Brown. "He's protecting the ball, holding the ball. We're running it better, which makes it harder for people to pass-rush. He had better protection Saturday. All those things are helping him. As I said after the Oklahoma game, right now this is his team. He is the guy. He is the starter."
"I think all of that is helping him with more confidence. There was a play early in the Oklahoma game, first drive, it was an either/or. He threw it outside on third-and-2 when we'd been running the ball well. He has to learn to make sure you trust your offensive line, trust your backs. We need to get two yards, if that's who we're going to be, and especially at that moment. We were probably going four downs."
"But that was the only one. Likewise, he had a pass called on the deep play to Mike Davis, but he's supposed to check into a run if the safety came back. We threw it over his head. He really did a great job of executing what we asked him to during the ball game."
When it was all over, there was McCoy with his senior teammates, wearing the Golden Hat for the first time, the demons of Red River Rivalries exorcised and a healthy injection of optimism mainlined into the veins of Texas players, coaches, and fans alike as the burnt orange faithful sang a hearty and triumphant Eyes of Texas to the deserted Oklahoma side of the stadium.
For McCoy, it was redemption, pure and sweet, and the culmination of a long journey that nearly led him away from the Texas program and the game of football.
Tim Heitman (USA TODAY Sports)
"A chip on his shoulder"
From McCoy's battle with scleroderma as a child, to overcoming charges of favoritism in recruiting that allowed him to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and come to Texas, McCoy has always had to overcome what Applewhite called "little brother syndrome."
At times, McCoy overcompensated with too much confidence that often verged into cockiness and a lack of self-awareness. That has changed this season.
"He certainly has a chip on his shoulder," said Applewhite. "And it doesn't come out in just feistiness or words, it comes out in his preparation and his dedication to his teammates. I see it every day. I think you have to have that no matter what position you play and no matter how talented or gifted you are physically, if you don't have that you're going to have a tough time playing."
Instead of making dangerous throws in an attempt to be a hero and prove himself or bailing on the pocket to go make a play as he often did in high school, McCoy is now channeling those emotions into giving himself that edge through his preparation.
Leadership and belief
As with many things surrounding the success McCoy experiences in his best moments on the football field, the causes of that success are often described as intangible -- hence the constant references to his moxie or his confidence or his command of the game.
One thing that is tangible is the belief that McCoy's teammates have in him despite his limitations.
"No one thinks I'm any good except for my team, and that's why my team keeps playing hard," McCoy cracked on Monday without any hint of bitterness, another sign of his comfort level in his own skin now.
Cracking the shell of McCoy's confidence seems an impossible task and it certainly hasn't happened yet. Buoyant and ineffable, that confidence looks like a galvanizing part of this Texas team right now. To hear McCoy describe it, the result is unsurprising, as the intensity of his belief comes through in his words.
"One thing I love to do is be a leader," McCoy said Monday. "I love to make guys want to play, find ways to make them achieve the best that they can be on that given Saturday. That's the fun part of playing the position I play. You get that credibility to an extent. What you do with that is where this part of the game becomes fun. Seeing people thrive in big moments like they have in the last couple weeks has been a blast to be a part of as a quarterback."
Tim Heitman (USA TODAY Sports)
The confidence had always been there, but the results hadn't always matched it, but with the big wins over Texas A&M, Kansas, Iowa State, and Oklahoma now under his belt, there's a new credibility attached to that confidence.
"The kid's a winner," offensive guard Mason Walters said on Monday. "That's great. People gravitate towards that. He has an air of confidence about him that he backs up all the time. He's continued to do all the things he should."
"He's come along and played in big games. There are a lot of things but that courage to go out there, there's moxie in him. He's going to give it his best shot no matter how things are stacked against him."
And if his upbringing left him a little bit jaded about the whole experience playing football after never having a break from the game to step back and appreciate it, the mission trip solved that, and now those skills he learned being around his father and his brother are starting to pay off in substantive ways.
"He has had a tremendous background with his dad being a coach," said Applewhite. "You know his older brother obviously playing quarterback. He's just got a lot of skills. A lot of things that are innate just because of the way he grew up. You know how to talk to other players. How to talk and respond to coaches. How to respond to an interception. All those are things he's just been out on the field and watched and observed and kind of just absorbed it. He's had a different background."
But asked why TCU is favored in the game and McCoy's self-deprecating sense of humor emerged again.
"Probably because I'm the quarterback, right?"
Those pesky limitations
Ah, yes, those oft-mentioned limitations.
As much as Applewhite has helped mitigate them with his game plans and other teams have helped at times by playing soft coverage on the outside and conceding throws taken away at other times in McCoy's career by other teams, the topic came up again on Monday.
"I mean we all have limitations," Aplewhite offered. "Does he have John Elway's arm? No he doesn't. Does he have an adequate arm that can make throws, yes. Yes he does. At the Kansas State game he threw two 15-yard out routes to the field on third down. So he can throw a 15-yard out to the field, which is whatever everybody says you have to have to be a strong-armed quarterback. He can make those throws."
"Is he Vince (Young)? No he's not Vince. But can he run and scramble if he has to? You know he has before. The (Texas) A&M game he did a decent job. So he can do some things. We've just got to keep that same attention to detail and that same mindset in terms of protecting the ball.
If McCoy does that, he can continue to find success.
The challenge ahead
Things don't get any easier moving forward. The Longhorns have benefited defensively from facing opposing offenses that aren't nearly the caliber of the teams Texas faced last season, even though some of them wear the same uniforms.
Likewise, the defenses the Horns are set to battle against will be better -- the offensive strength of schedule through the first part of the season was hardly bad (27th nationally), but the remaining schedule is the ninth-hardest in the country, thanks to the strong defenses fielded by TCU, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Baylor. In fact, only Kansas remains on the schedule as a team with a poor defense.
McCoy understands that there is still more work to be done.
"Our challenge now is we know what we are, we know our identity, what we can be," said McCoy. "The challenge now is to be that every week and be better than that last week. There's still so much to improve off of the last game. That's fun about this sport. You got to keep fighting, working, understand how much better you can be week in, week out."
"I've always felt like I had an impact on this team, even when I was on the sidelines. These guys are my brothers. We train day in, day out together. Love these guys, these coaches. Being on the field is even that much of a greater feeling."
Hope springs again
When McCoy was on the field, there was always McCoy-to-Shipley, where for a few precious moments a Texas fan could drift away in ecstatic nostalgia to another time now seemingly long gone and the pain and drain of loses and expectations unmet would simply melt away and once again there would be hope and for a fleeting instant the football would be good again.
Now McCoy has manufactured his own hope and it's his own version -- not the lofty hopes of a crystal football in confetti on college football's biggest stage after an immortal scramble into the end zone and not even necessarily the hope of the school's first Big 12 title since 2009, though that is still obviously on the table. It's a more modest hope befitting Case's slight frame, but it's hope, fresh and pure and as yet unadulterated.
Hope like the peace and calm that currently shines out through his smile, but more fervent.
Instead of going gently into that good night, McCoy is on a last magical run of success that has carved out a legacy as unorthodox and unusual as his throwing mechanics.
As Mason Walters said, "There's moxie in him," one of those inescapable words in the Case McCoy narrative. And there's confidence, as always, and renewed dedication, a genuine love for his teammates and the game that is about to slip away from him as a player, but only remnants of the cockiness, that youthful hubris washed away in the waters of Peru.
There's light in the face of Case McCoy and belief in the faces of his teammates. Somehow, put it all together, and right now, it's enough.
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