The 2014 season is a chance for Texas quarterback David Ash to make up for 2013.
Ash entered last season with high expectations. He was named to multiple preseason watch lists and was poised to have a breakout junior year following the bumpy start of his college career.
But things took a turn when the Longhorns faced BYU on Sept. 7. Ash left the game in the fourth quarter after taking multiple, harrowing hits, which resulted in a concussion.
After sitting out the following week, Ash returned to the field in time to kick off Big 12 play, but his stay did not last long.
Ash suffered recurring concussion symptoms against Kansas State, and Texas fans did not see him under center for the rest of the season.
"It was hard," Ash said. "A concussion is something where nobody sees a cast, nobody really knows what is going on. It's a tough deal. But, that's past, and we are moving on to the future now."
Playing it Safe
The expectations for 2014 are nowhere near those of last season. But head coach Charlie Strong does expect Ash to protect his body and avoid contact as much as he can.
Strong put together a lowlight reel for all of his players. When he went through the film with his quarterback, he asked him what he was trying to prove in taking such hard hits.
"I don't need to see how tough you are. If you can outrun him, outrun him, but run out of bounds or slide or something. Just don't take a hit," Strong said of his conversation with Ash. "He took like three or four hits and I just stopped it and asked what he was trying to prove."
The redshirt junior has taken his coach's words to heart and plans on playing a smarter brand of football this season.
"He told me I have to get down. He's right. I have taken hits that were not necessary," Ash said of his talk with Strong. "Sometimes you are just trying to get that mojo going. But there are other ways rather than taking hits like that. He just made it clear that is not what I have to do or how I have to play. I'm going to start being smarter, doing a little baseball practice with sliding and getting out of bounds. I can't be taking those hits anymore."
Managing the New Offense
The Longhorns have installed a new offense under quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson and offensive coordinator Joe Wickline. There was an obvious learning curve when the team was first taught the offense, but Ash has done consistently well throughout fall camp and has the confidence of his position coach.
"In what we do and what we ask him to do, to be honest with you, he's been outstanding. He's been awesome," Watson said. "Everything is done through the eyes of the quarterback. David has allowed our whole team to move fast because he's moved so fast."
Watson said the ideal situation is to be balanced on offense, but nobody is expecting Ash to win games by himself. The Longhorns have potential for a solid ground attack between running backs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, which will take a lot of pressure off of Ash from trying to make too many plays on his own.
Strong has constantly said he doesn't need Ash to be a great player. What the coaches want to see is his ability to manage the game and get the offense in the right place to make plays.
"When you get a quarterback in a new offense, it's just how much he can press that offense and how much he's willing to learn and study," Strong said. "That's what he's been able to do, just learn the offense and study. I always tell him this, 'I don't need a great player, I just need you to manage and do what we ask you to do. I don't like to see the ball turned over.' He's been able to make the throws at practice, been able to get us in the right checks and get us in the right place."
Ash will likely experience some hiccups this season. When Texas takes the field against North Texas on Aug. 30, 342 days will have passed since Ash has seen contact. The concerns surrounding his frightening injury history will likely continue throughout the 2014 season, and a lot of Texas fans will cringe anytime he hits the ground.
But what's most important for the Longhorns, aside from his health, is for Ash to be the game manager his coaches expect him to be.
As Ash told Anwar Richardson of Orangebloods.com (subscription required):
You have to manage the game. You have to be a general on the field. You have to be a coach on the field. You have to distribute the ball. You have to give your team the right play. You have to know when to take risks and when not to. Does that sell my talent short? No. I feel like I'm very talented at managing football games. That's why I play quarterback.
One area his teammates have commended Ash for is his increased leadership role. The quarterback has previously been labeled as a shy person who would not speak up in the huddle. He is also a man of few words in media settings.
But Ash has taken notice of the way great quarterbacks lead their teams and plans to do the same for the Longhorns. As he told Richardson:
Leadership, a large part of it is your teammates believing in you, but that belief they have in you comes in you showing up and making plays consistently in practice, and not rolling over in game situations. That's the reason you believe in most of the great quarterbacks you see because you see them execute. You see them execute in tough situations. You see Tom Brady execute consistently. His teammates believe in him. You see Aaron Rodgers execute consistently so his teammates believe in him.
It's all about your actions, and I think that's what shows up. Great play comes from great preparation. Great play comes from team effort. Great play comes from coaching. There's a lot of things that go into that, but that team togetherness and unity comes when we all believe in each other, we're all going to do our jobs, and it's all going to pay off. That's how good team ball works.
Comparing his style of play to Rodgers and Brady is a bit of a stretch, considering they are two of the most consistent and reliable quarterbacks in the NFL.
Ash's career has seen a lot of ups and downs. When he was up, he played very well. When he was down, it was the complete opposite.
Consistency is something Ash will need to prove early this season, especially since Texas will face three preseason AP Top 10 teams in its first six games.
But one thing nobody can question is the quarterback's determination.
There are a lot of people who would have considered giving up football after going through what he experienced in 2013.
For Ash, quitting was never an option.
He believes he is meant to be on the football field and is determined to prove that to his team and to all of his critics.
"He really wants to be a great player," Watson said. "I think he has unsettled affairs after the kind of year he went through last year. I respect that. He has worked really hard and has played very efficient football."
He obviously has the drive to be a great player, but only time will tell if he can show that greatness on a consistent basis.
His coaches have praised his work over the last eight months. Now is the time for him to prove it.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Taylor Gaspar is Bleacher Report's featured columnist covering the Texas Longhorns. Follow her on Twitter: @Taylor_Gaspar.
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