Looking back, it's not hard to pinpoint the moment that former Texas Longhorns quarterback David Ash finally let loose and gave himself up to the game. A perfectionist who often worried so much about doing everything right that he didn't just go play, Ash was facing a critical moment in his career as a sophomore attempting to lead a 10-point comeback in the fourth quarter against the Oregon State Beavers in the Alamo Bowl.
The critical moments start at 7:50
Down by 10 points in the third quarter, Ash took a quarterback draw up the middle, then hurdled two Oregon State defenders to find the end zone from 11 yards out. While the play didn't showcase any athleticism previously unknown to that point, it was Ash's reaction that signaled a change -- the normally low-key demeanor was gone and Ash spiked the football with the intensity of his celebration, then let loose some screams while surrounded by his teammates.
A few minutes later, Ash had to continue his emergence in the midst of some adversity. He had gotten hit while trying to release a pass and fluttered an interception into the hands of a Beavers defender, setting up a short field upon which Oregon State capitalized on five plays. All of the sudden, the energy created in the stadium dissipated.
Then Texas tried and failed to convert a fourth down with a pass by the punter just into Oregon State territory, but the defense held to give the 'Horns the ball back with about 10 minutes remaining. Ash needed to respond after an up-and-down regular season that featured multiple benchings in favor of Case McCoy. This was the moment for him to define his offseason trajectory.
The Belton product started the ensuing drive with five straight completions for 62 yards, then ran for seven more. On 3rd and 4 in the red zone, Ash stood tall in the pocket as an unblocked defender screamed off the edge towards him. Stepping up, Ash strode strong through the attempted tackle, then raced left parallel to the line of scrimmage as another defender closed quickly. Opening his hips at the last second, Ash floated a pass down the sideline to running back Johnathan Gray just before being hit. Perfectly placed, the ball gently hit the hands of Gray just before he crossed the end zone for a huge 15-yard touchdown.
On its own, the play provided a tantalizing vision of the new, unencumbered Ash's upside. But there was more to come.
For a second straight time, the defense responded, forcing a punt by the Beavers after five plays and getting the ball back to its emerging quarterback.
With the ball in Oregon State territory to start the drive, offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin sensed an opportunity to get physical and force the defense into the box. It took four running plays to pick up a clean set of downs, but Gray converted 4th and 1 out of the Wildcat when he cut bounced a Power run outside the right tackle to the back side of the play.
The Beavers then called a defense with a single deep safety and Ash looked him off to the strongside field as wide receiver Marquise Goodwin turned on his world-class speed in a one-on-one match up in the boundary. It was the same play that Ash had missed earlier in the game. But this wasn't the same Ash.
After hitting the back of his drop, Ash re-focused right to find his his target, took a rhythm-creating hop, then extended his release to the highest point to sail a beautiful parabola towards Goodwin, who had predictably torched his man. By the time Ash released the ball and the safety turned to run, he was still stuck inside the hash mark after following Ash's eyes so far to the boundary.
The ball hit the pocket of Goodwin's hands halfway through the end zone at a dead run -- perfectly placed. Texas won, thanks to Ash's heroics and a defense that harried the Oregon State quarterback late.
In those moments, there was a new David Ash and he was cut loose, confident and comfortable enough to reach his lofty goal of putting his name alongside those of Vince Young and Colt McCoy in the pantheon of modern Longhorns quarterbacks.
To be sure, there had been flashes that season, including a late comeback against Oklahoma State that featured a 4th-and-6 conversion down by two on the road with 1:40 remaining and an unbelievable 35-yard pass to Mike Davis that set up the game-winning touchdown. Just not enough flashes to keep McCoy from throwing 75 passes that season.
Despite the valleys Ash faced as a sophomore, the stats told a promising tale at the end of the season -- 20th nationally in passer rating, tied for 13th in yards per attempt with Johnny Manziel, tied for 13th in completion percentage with future play Derek Carr. There was the streak of 116 passes without an interception that still ranks fourth-longest in school history.
Ash was efficient vertically, he was a plus runner, he had ideal height, strength, and mechanics to throw the ball effectively with velocity or touch. He finally had everything click after being held back by his constant striving for perfection and reticence to step into a leadership role he hasn't totally earned.
There were sixth senior quarterbacks who finished ahead of Ash in passer rating that year, suggesting that even a modest leap -- one easy to envision in late 2012 -- would have been good enough to vault the 6'3, 220-pounder into elite company nationally with two season of eligibility remaining.
All summer, the debates raged about his upside, many of them focused more on his bad games than the quarterback he proved himself to be in those critical moments in San Antonio.
Too few recognized and seized upon the the Oregon State comeback as what it was.
And the extent of that potential remains a mystery, as it will forever. Late in the blowout in Provo the following fall, Ash took a fateful carry that resulted in the blow to the head that would ultimately end his career. An attempted quick return against Kansas State after missing only one full game surely didn't help, leading to halftime symptoms that lingered long enough to cost him the rest of the season. In 2014, Ash lasted only game before notifying his coaches in the aftermath that his symptoms were back once again.
And that was the end, as Ash officially announced his retirement before the end of September, concluding a football career that looked so promising 13 months prior, leaving so much unknown and unknowable.
Since Colt McCoy's fateful moment of his own in the Rose Bowl to end his own Texas career, there hasn't been a bigger "What if?" moment in Texas football over the last six years than Ash's concussion against BYU.
What if he had been healthy in 2013 to lead Major Applewhite's offense and help Texas win the Big 12 and enable head coach Mack Brown to keep his job? What if he had been able to return in 2014 with two years of eligibility to help new head coach Charlie Strong and helm Shawn Watson's offense? How many games would his presence have been worth in any of those three seasons? How close would he have come to scattering his name at the top of the Texas records for quarterbacks?
What if Ash had been healthy enough in 2013 to keep Tyrone Swoopes from getting his redshirt burned? Where would Swoopes be now with two seasons of eligibility remaining?
Ash may not wonder about the last two questions, but he certainly wonders about his own career.
"To get it cut short before I really found out what would happen was really hard," Ash told KEYETV. "I think back on it and I think things could've been a lot different."
More than anyone else can possibly fathom, in those heady moments after the victory against Oregon State Ash knew where he was as a football player ready to actualize and maximize his talent. He saw the path towards an incredible legacy open up in front of him. Then close off just as quickly.
There's no small amount of tragedy in the inaccessibility of that reality. No small amount of greatness unachieved. Ash did everything right. He deserved it. It wasn't to be.
Fortunately, the cornerstone of Ash's life is his faith and it helps him keep from lingering too long in the unknown. A pending Master's degree in finance will help write a compelling chapter in the professional world. There is plenty more ahead for Ash and, hopefully, an easy assurance in the knowledge that Texas fans will remember him the way that he wanted to be remembered.
"As someone who gave more than he took," Ash said. "And as someone who stuck to his values and really represented his faith and his family."