Ask him any question about job security. The answer remains the same.
Texas coach Mack Brown makes it clear he’s comfortable where the Longhorns are headed this season despite a growing legion of critics who camp on Texas’ combined 22-16 mark — and ongoing slide toward BCS irrelevance — the past three seasons.
“I don’t think you ever have the approval of everybody in your life,” Brown said during Tuesday’s final session of Big 12 media days.
But the Texas coach envisions an imminent uptick in his approval rating, as well as his winning percentage, as soon as the Longhorns unleash new, improved quarterback David Ash.
In arguably the most pressure-packed of his 16 seasons in Austin, Brown is all-in on the idea that Ash, who has a 12-6 record as a Texas starter, will be a difference-maker in the team’s new up-tempo offense. Brown is pushing all his chips to the center of the table to wager that the light bulb finally has gone on for a quarterback who spent his off-season picking the brains of past Longhorns QB legends Vince Young and Colt McCoy for insights, then following their suggestions.
With coaches fully in Ash’s corner for the most extended stretch of his career and backup Case McCoy recently returned from a 10-week mission trip in Peru, this truly has been Ash’s summer to shine in Austin. Teammates and coaches say he’s become a better student of the game and better leader than the freshman who threw more interceptions (8) than touchdown passes (4) in 2011 or the sophomore who looked overmatched and befuddled in last year’s season-defining 63-21 loss to Oklahoma.
The proof comes in August. But Brown left no doubt Tuesday that he believes Ash, the most experienced returning quarterback in the Big 12 (based on career starts), can carry Texas to a conference title this season.
“He’s leading the team much better and they believe in him. Sitting here the last two years, I haven’t been able to say that,” Brown said. “David is the upside. He’s the guy that needs to get us over the hump. If he stays healthy and the defense plays good, he will.”
Without question, the Big 12 title is there for the taking by any of six teams that received first-place votes in the preseason media poll. Without question, Ash understands he must be better than a 12-6 quarterback if he is to meet expectations at Texas. Ash said he’s adjusted his personal habits with that goal in mind since having a heart-to-heart discussion with Brown before last year’s Alamo Bowl.
“I remember it vividly,” said Ash, who led the Longhorns to a 31-27 triumph in that contest. “The first thing he said was, ‘Who’s your favorite pro quarterback?’”
Ash identified Tom Brady, telling Brown he liked the way Brady rallied the troops in crunch time. Then, Brown turned the tables.
“He said, ‘You have to make your teammates buy into you just like everyone buys into Tom Brady. You have to do something that makes them think that something good’s about to happen,’” Ash said.
To make that happen, Ash sought advice from Longhorns luminaries. Colt McCoy helped him clean up some sloppy footwork. Young urged him to be more “visible and available” for teammates, on and off the field. Texas offensive coordinator Major Applewhite drove home Young’s sentiments.
“Coach Applewhite says you don’t want to be the quarterback that’s up in the ivory tower,” Ash said. “You want to be the quarterback that’s in the foxhole with your teammates. That’s what I want.”
So the quiet kid from Belton, who grew up in a house without a television because of the family’s strong religious convictions, pushed himself to step outside his comfort zone. He began showing up for 6 a.m. workouts and lifting with offensive linemen. He hung out with teammates in more social settings. He got more vocal in voluntary 7-on-7 workouts.
“He’s coming into this year different,” safety Adrian Phillips said. “You can see that throughout the team. He talks more. Any little thing that he can do to get the trust of the team, he does. He’s doing a great job at it.”
Will it translate on the field? There’s certainly reason to believe it can, particularly if Texas’ three-headed collection of running backs (Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron) stays healthy and productive enough to keep the offense balanced.
Ash showed enough signs of improvement last season (67.3 completion rate, 19 TD passes, 8 interceptions) to suggest he’s far from a finished product. Applying a few lessons learned this off-season could make the difference between another 9-4 season, like last year, and a Big 12 title like Colt McCoy (2009) and Young (2005) to cap their careers.
Like his coach, Ash is expecting a breakthrough season in 2013.
“At this point, it’s about time,” Ash said. “In my two years here, I’ve seen everything. I’ve played good against good teams. I’ve played bad against good teams. I’ve played bad against bad teams. Hopefully, through that, I’ll be able to go into situations now and play all of those games well. To me, that’s the next step.
“We could easily have been 11-2 last year. You’ve got to go up right now. If you go up, you’re back where you want to be.”
If not, Brown will have to revisit more of those nagging questions about his job security.