During the spring, Texas Longhorns co-offensive coordinator and play caller Major Applewhite called the leadership questions surrounding his starting junior quarterback David Ash "a lot of wasted conversation."
But as much as Applewhite would probably like for those questions to go away in favor of other topics, Big 12 Media Days, Ash's availability after the first practice, and senior offensive guard Mason Walters referring to Ash in three of seven answers, clearly demonstrated that those questions aren't going away just yet.
And there can be little doubt that the national perspective is still remarkably negative about the third-year player. That he merely is what he is -- an inconsistent quarterback defined by being pulled for Case McCoy and looking overwhelmed in the Cotton Bowl.
It's not exactly news in these parts, but the national narrative fails to take into consideration his progression from a true freshman thrust into the spotlight two years ago to a sophomore still finding his feet to a confident junior ready to make his mark on the world of college football.
Consider that only a year ago Ash was coming off a summer in which he and McCoy split reps because head coach Mack Brown thought that limiting the reps of his likely starter to split time with a clear career back up was a smart idea to foster "competition." Throw in undermining Ash's development as a leader because he wasn't in a position to take control of the summer workouts and the whole situation just looks worse.
Even going back to his freshman season, Ash was thrown into the starting role after taking fourth-team reps during the summer, which basically meant that he took no reps at all. And the offense? One coming off a season in which Greg Davis tried to fit personnel recruited for a spread, quick-passing offense into a power-rushing attack, a transition that simply changing the offensive coordinator couldn't fully accomplish.
Now Ash is finally in an offense that will take advantage of available personnel instead of attempting to rely on a mish-mash tight end group. Finally in an offense designed to punish opponents with new-school inside zone and run/pass concepts, not to mention the fast tempo that will allow Ash to find a rhythm, tire defenses, and put them on their heels in a way that no Texas offense has ever attempted.
What point does re-hashing recent history serve? Merely to point out that perhaps more than any other prominent player on the Texas roster this season, it has been Ash who suffered the most from Mack Brown's previous sins -- allowing his offensive line recruiting and development to grow stale, the mismanagement of quarterback recruiting that thrust Ash into the spotlight well before his time, the offensive experiments that failed to respond to college football's modern paradigms.
Then there were Brown's sins perpetuated against Ash himself -- his lack of understanding that while Ash was someone who needed to win the job himself, he was also a player who would have benefited tremendously from spending last summer preparing as the starter. Somehow Brown didn't seem to realize that Ash is the definition of a self-starter. His effort level and work ethic doesn't change whether he's the starter or the fourth-stringer, that much is clear about him as a person and a player, a constancy that represents one of his greatest attributes.
Then there was the game against Kansas, when Ash was pulled for McCoy, only to see McCoy lead a touchdown drive by running the ball every single play (with the exception of a push pass jet sweep to Marquise Goodwin that went into the record books as a pass), for the first time actually employing the perimeter run game.
If that isn't the definition of ludicrous, I'm not sure that I understand it.
It's possible to read that list as a litany of excuses, but truly the attempt is to conceptualize where Ash fit within the larger picture of the Texas offense when he arrived and what are characterized here as mistakes that slowed his development.
Ash has acknowledged several times already that being named the clear-cut starter has helped him, making the point again on Monday:
It removes a lot of distractions. You can concentrate on the ball, your feet, accuracy and coverages. You don't have to worry about any other stuff.
It's the difference between being worried about making a mistake and being comfortable enough to make throws. Ultimately, that responsibility has to lie heavily with the player, but it's on the coaches to foster as great of a comfort level as possible, something that Baylor head coach Art Briles seems to do exceptionally well.
The quiet mind didn't completely benefit Ash on Monday, however, as multiple practice reports indicated that he threw an interception over the middle to Mykkele Thompson, an area of the field in which he threw the interception to Adrian Colbert in the spring game and struggled last season, missing sophomore tight end MJ McFarland several times. It appears that area of the field is one that continues to cause him issues, in part exposing his lack of elite ability to read and identify defenders, an area that could significantly decrease his upside if he can't start finding some answers in the coming weeks.
In the end, despite the continued room for improvement in the intermediate middle and in overall consistency, it's actually been quite a remarkable journey for Ash, whose most notable change has been in his self-possession. No, that's actually not fair -- it's been both a combination of self-possession and possession of the team.
For Walters, it has been a natural progression:
I've seen it for years, but it's just a process you go through. The quarterback position, I haven't played it, but just from the outside looking in, it's [about] maturing and he's staying on track with that. He's a great athlete, great quarterback, great mind, good kid, and we're seeing him just come into his own. He's stepping up, he's leading and he's as natural as anybody else. That progression is continuing to come right along and it's paying off.
Ash believes that leading his teammates into the end zone is the best way to prove his leadership abilities, but taking control over summer workouts is an area that represents the potential for enormous growth for the most important player on the team. Without coaches around, it's up to the team leaders, and especially the quarterback, to take control over the workouts and ensure attendance and focus -- instead of the coaches serving as the task managers, as they do during the spring and fall, the summer is the sole providence of the team leaders.
Walters indicated that Ash did indeed take a leadership role in that area:
It's got to be collective because there are so many different positions and different things like kinks in the offense, working out with your position group, getting with receivers and the defense doing the same thing. When it's team organization, [senior quarterback] David [Ash] always made sure that everybody got the message. Other guys per position were doing that, but David made sure there wasn't any miscommunication and no one was falling through the gaps.
Always candid during interviews, there are still the same moments of incisiveness from Ash that make his transcripts worth reading, but he's also slowly drifted into coach-speak, of which they are two types. There are the deflective answers like Ash deferring to a film study when asked about plays that stood out and then there are comments like the Belton product talking about the need to start more slowly with the tempo early in fall practice to ensure quality, then increase it as camp moves along. The former is mostly throwaway stuff, but the latter is sounding like a coach because their beliefs and ideals and instructions are completely inculcated into the quarterback's psyche.
And don't underestimate that leap -- that move from the learning phase to the being phase, the knowing phase. David Ash is finally secure without being complacent, an extension of the coaching staff without being an automaton, a leader in both example and word.
Now there's an ignorant national narrative to dismantle and it's almost too bad that all the put downs and trolling don't motivate Ash. But that self-containment and self-possesion is also a part of what could make him great.