Longhorns’ season hinges on QB decision

At Big 12 Media Days, Texas coach Mack Brown was inevitably asked the question about the quarterback battle between sophomore David Ash and junior Case McCoy.

Brown’s half-joking response was to point out that the Longhorns had four quarterbacks in last year’s battle, but were entering this season on a high note by narrowing the field. Now, Brown said, the trick would be picking one quarterback.

Indeed, last spring saw a quarterback battle of Texas-sized proportions, with Garrett Gilbert winning out over McCoy, Ash and Connor Wood. Wood transferred and Gilbert lost the job two games in and suffered a shoulder injury before transferring himself. And then, there were two.

“I don’t think it’s any different [than last year],” McCoy said. “I was competing against Garrett Gilbert [last year]. I guess that’s the difference. He’s not here anymore. But I think the competition’s the same. You came to the University of Texas to compete, and nothing’s ever handed to you here. I think we all know that, and I think we’re all excited about what’s going to happen this fall.

“This is a bigger job than most colleges at quarterback,” McCoy said. “And you’ve got to learn to handle that and still play to the best of your abilities.”

Last fall, both McCoy and Ash had their moments. Ash, as a true freshman, rose from fourth on the depth chart in the spring to play in all 13 games. He ended the season on a high note, winning MVP of the Holiday Bowl, and exiting the spring as the apparent favorite for the job.

Ash described himself as a passer who can run, but listed his primary strength as toughness. It’s a trait Ash said he earned by hauling hay, breathing alfalfa in the heat and “getting kicked by cows and stuff like that” growing up.

“I like to think of myself as tough,” Ash said. “Every game, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, there’s going to be a point where it’s hard. Where things aren’t going well. I think I can ride any period like that.”

Some of that mental toughness was needed after Ash completed 56.6 percent of his passes for 1,068 yards and just four touchdowns to eight interceptions. His passer rating of 106.9 was more than six points below that of Gilbert’s 2011 numbers.

“It didn’t really wear on me too bad, so I didn’t have to pick myself up,” Ash said of the 2011 struggles.

Indeed, much of the interest in Ash seems to come from the fact that he achieved so much despite getting few formative repetitions in the spring after enrolling early, and still not seeing a ton last fall before he was thrust into the fire.

“The more you can rep something the better,” Ash said. “Most young quarterbacks don’t understand the value of a rep.”

Ash said that he understood more now the value of making every throw, even warmup throws, repetitions. When he would throw a warmup pass, Ash said he focused on putting each pass in a specific spot, to adjust for potential defender placement.

“I worked on accuracy, foot quickness, just everything you do,” Ash said. “And the biggest thing I worked on was just getting in the film room and trying to understand this offense front and back, sideways and edgewise.”

He did that by spending much more time in the film room than in his dorm room. Last season, Ash didn’t have a television in his room, and he said he’s still not much into watching TV.

“I don’t have too much use for that stuff,” Ash said. “I always go watch film if I want to look at a screen.”

It’s one effort that Ash is taking to make himself a more complete quarterback. But on the other side, McCoy enters his junior season known as the “intangibles” quarterback, somebody who lacks Ash’s size (6-foot-3 223), arm strength or mobility. But McCoy tipped the scales at 200 pounds — up 15 from his weight after the Holiday Bowl — heading into fall camp. And it’s McCoy that made the biggest play with his legs last year.

That’s when McCoy found his way into Longhorn lore, scrambling for 25 yards to set up the game-winning field goal in the final (for now) contest against Texas A&M.

“I don’t think anyone knew that I had legs and could run. I’m not very fast, but I was running for my life on that play.”

Then there’s this: McCoy was the starter in three Longhorn road victories against bowl teams — UCLA, Iowa State and A&M. He also completed 7-of-8 passes to help the Longhorns come back against BYU, and led two late scoring drives against Kansas State, though the comeback effort fell short.

But at the same time, the quarterback known for his intangibles also had the occasional departure from his strong performances as game manager. He lost two fumbles in the Red River loss to Oklahoma, and tarnished an at-times-brilliant performance against Baylor — 24-of-39 for 356 yards and three touchdowns — by throwing four interceptions, including some that changed the game’s momentum. Those were the only four interceptions McCoy threw all year.

“I think it’s definitely just being consistent,” McCoy said. “I think both of us had opportunities. And we both played really good, and we both played awful at times last season.

“We made it to where [who played] wasn’t in our hands,” McCoy said. “We put it in the coaches’ hands, made hard decisions [for] them. Made hard decisions [for] our teammates and that’s the whole deal. We just both need to play to the best of our ability and it will play itself out. It always does. If we’re both really good, then we’ll both play.”

McCoy said he would like for the Longhorns to have a No. 1 quarterback before the first game. If that happens, Brown said it would be because the quarterbacks decided the matter by their play on the field.

“They will be the ones to have it done when they make the decision for us, and then we will make it,” Brown said. “I do think that some people panic over it and say it should have been done in June, should have been done in spring. I love the fact that if you’re not really sure, and it’s not clear cut, that the guys have had to compete and lead the team all summer.”

Leading, along with the ability to manage the game, is one of the primary attributes that Brown said he’s looking for at quarterback. It also happens to be what McCoy points to as his main strength.

“I think my leadership puts me above a lot,” McCoy said. “I think that’s something that my brother had as well, and a lot of quarterbacks that play the game thrive on that. But to an extent, I don’t want that to be all that I’m good at.

You can lead all you want,” McCoy said. “You can talk and be the example all you want, but until you can go out on the field and play the game and be a great quarterback, leadership doesn’t go so far.”

Ash, who recently read a book titled “Living Leaders” to try and study up on the subject, agrees.

“What is leadership? I don’t know. People say it’s a lot of different things,” Ash said. “But when you come down to it, it’s a really abstract term that has a different meaning to everyone. I think guys want to follow the guy who’s going to put them in the end zone. So that’s my goal.”

The Longhorns didn’t put the ball in the end zone as much as they hoped in 2011, but still sat at 6-2 before losing their top three running backs and receiver Jaxon Shipley to injuries. In its next two games, Texas foundered, scoring 18 combined points (including two from a safety) in losses to Missouri and Kansas State.

But there’s hope that the Longhorns will be better in 2012, thanks to the return of their top two rushers, top three receivers and four of their five starting offensive linemen, along with the addition of Scout.com’s top-rated recruiting class.

“Whichever way we decide to go [at quarterback], I know it’s going to work because we’ve got a lot of players on this team that have decided that they’re going to make it work,” McCoy said. “[Quarterback] isn’t going to be the position that’s going to define this whole team.

“We went 8-5 last year,” McCoy said. “And we’re looking for something much bigger this year.”