AUSTIN, Texas -- David Ash grew up "in the country," as he describes his childhood in Belton, a small town in central Texas. He and his brothers and cousins went swimming in the river. They made mud balls. Sometimes, they had water-balloon fights. He went fishing. But mostly, said Ash, "Our world revolved around church."
The Longhorns' third-year quarterback is as devout as they come, frequently reciting bible quotes in response to reporters' questions. That's certainly not unique among recent high-profile quarterbacks, but the extent of the middle school principal's son's strict and sheltered upbringing -- Ash's family, for example, had a TV but no signal -- is rare for a starter at one of the nation's most visible college football programs. It only makes sense that he needed an adjustment period upon arriving at a 50,000-student campus located in the state capitol before the 2011 season.
"Coming in I didn't really expect to play until I was a redshirt sophomore," he said.
But when former five-star recruit Garrett Gilbert got hurt early in the '11 campaign (he's now a fifth-year senior at SMU), Ash, a former three-star prospect, became a true freshman starter whether he was ready or not. Now with 18 career starts, he enters this fall as the Big 12's most experienced quarterback. If Texas and its 19 returning starters hope to finally return to the program's formerly lofty national status, they'll need their soft-spoken, previously inconsistent passer to lead them there.
"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," Longhorns coach Mack Brown said of the junior. "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."
Ash initially garnered little attention upon signing with Texas, in part because he committed nearly a full year earlier in February 2010. Texas' staff zeroed in on the 6-foot-3 signal-caller as its primary quarterback target for that class after watching him at a summer camp prior to his junior year of high school. "What we saw was a very smart, very driven gym rat," said Brown. "He's got a great arm -- a pro arm."
Ash spent a turbulent first two seasons at Texas in a seemingly never-ending quarterback competition with redshirt junior Case McCoy. Brown and the offensive coaches could never seem to put their full faith in either player. Neither could many 'Horns fans who watched Ash struggle as a true freshman.
"When I first came in we'd just gotten a new coaching staff, we were installing a new offense, we were very young as a team and then I was a freshman quarterback, all at the same time," said Ash. "None of those things were exactly positive."
Still, after an 8-5 freshman campaign in which he threw twice as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns (four) and never passed for more than 158 yards in a game, Ash got off to a hot start in 2012. He went a near-flawless 19-of-23 for 326 yards and four touchdowns in a 66-31 rout at Ole Miss, then he threw for 304 yards and led a game-winning touchdown drive at Oklahoma State. He ranked second nationally in pass efficiency at the end of September.
Within a few weeks, however, he was struggling through his second straight Red River Massacre against Oklahoma. On Oct. 27, the offensively challenged 'Horns nearly lost at 1-7 Kansas until McCoy relieved Ash and produced a last-second touchdown. Ash went down with cracked ribs against Iowa State, and he needed to be pulled again in a Thanksgiving night home loss to TCU.
But with McCoy suspended for the Alamo Bowl against No. 13 Oregon State for violating curfew, Ash played for the first time without the threat of a potential hook. Down 20-10, he appeared noticeably more confident while sparking a second-half Texas surge behind an 11-yard touchdown scamper (punctuated with an uncharacteristic end-zone spike) and fourth-quarter passing scores of 15 and 36 yards. The latter, to receiver Marquise Goodwin with 2:24 left, proved the decisive touchdown in a 31-27 victory.
From that moment, there's never been a question as to Texas' 2013 starting quarterback.
"It's kind of a relief you can just go play football now, you don't have to worry about making mistakes," said Ash. "Whenever you're scared to make a mistake you just can't play. It's freeing, I guess, is the best word to use."
To be the quarterback at Texas requires more than just throwing touchdowns. Like his two All-America predecessors, Vince Young and Colt McCoy, Ash is the de facto face of the team. There's an unspoken and perhaps unrealistic expectation that the quarterback will command his teammates in some demonstrative fashion, which admittedly has not come naturally for the polite and cerebral Ash.
This spring, however, Ash got to spend time with childhood hero Young, who returned to Austin to finish his degree. The former Heisman runner-up's mentorship of "Ashley," as Young called him, consisted largely of urging him to loosen up. During spring practices Ash seemed animated, led the offense in summer workouts and served as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy.
"He's a young man that's very, very religious, never had a drink, never said a cuss word, doesn't date," Brown said previously. "He's had to learn how to interact with the kids. Vince has really helped him with that. [Offensive coordinator] Major [Applewhite] has really helped him with that. I've seen him in a better spot now than I've ever seen him."
Brown followed up this summer: "David has grown up."
Texas' entire offense is maturing, as Applewhite, who took over play-calling duties for the departed Bryan Harsin (now the head coach at Arkansas State) prior to last December's bowl game, has also helped Ash by moving to a more quarterback-friendly offense. The 'Horns began installing more up-tempo packages before their showdown with Oregon State; this spring and summer have been dedicated to becoming a full-fledged hurry-up team. Meanwhile, three years after Texas' ill-fated attempt to morph into a pro-style, I-formation team (largely to fit Gilbert and a trio of physical incoming running backs), the 'Horns are back in the shotgun with three or four receivers on the majority of plays.
"[The no-huddle] is not going to be our entire identity, but we want the ability, when things are clicking, we can keep going fast," said Applewhite. "We're not trying to throw the ball 65, 70 times a game, but we are going to throw the ball more."
A quicker tempo also means more practice reps and opportunities for Ash to fine-tune his game. For all of his hiccups, he still finished last season with a 67.3 completion percentage, but he needs to reduce turnovers (he had a 19-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio) and take advantage of Texas' abundance of playmakers at receiver (veterans Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley and touted sophomore Kendall Sanders, among others).
"Early [last season], against Ole Miss, he had a great game, but you could still see his timing wasn't quite there, he was underthrowing deep balls with guys wide open," said Applewhite. "As the season started to go, he got a little bit better, but you get later in the season, and there's the inconsistency, taking care of the ball. Understand that you don't have to make the play, you just have to be the point guard, distribute the mail."
There's one other benefit to Ash working more closely with Applewhite, the 'Horns starting quarterback in the late 1990s: "The one thing Bryan couldn't do is talk to the quarterbacks about being the quarterback at Texas, the pressure and attention and all of that," said Brown. "Major can do that."
As much as he's played already, Ash still has two years of eligibility remaining to paint his legacy in Austin. If he progresses as expected, that could mean being the quarterback who leads the 'Horns back to prominence. Or at least that's how the public would view him.
"My goal is to be the best I can be and work hard every day for God's glory, and be the best David I can be," said Ash. "... All the hard work we're putting in, to be part of something special like that that would be awesome. But hopefully the mark I leave is more important than wins and losses."
The formerly quiet country boy is growing into a man.