Texas quarterback David Ash heard the talk in the offseason about being a game manager. The Longhorns didn't need a quarterback to win games, fans said. They just needed one who wouldn't lose them.
Ash said all the rights things, too. He said he would spend the entire season handing off to running backs as long as it meant winning.
But inside, Ash had to know he had more to offer. He could throw. He could move the chains. He could win.
The sophomore who was simply overwhelmed as a freshman in last season's 55-17 loss to Oklahoma returns to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas this week to face the No. 13 Sooners (4-1, 1-1 Big 12) as not just a game manager, but the best, most consistent offensive player for No. 15 Texas (4-1, 1-1).
"We're asking him to win the games now," Longhorns coach Mack Brown said, "and he's doing what we're asking."
Ash, who split time last season with Case McCoy, emerged from training camp as the starter. Brown insisted those two were battling for the job, but Ash's play so far this season suggests he had wrapped up all along.
Ash has gone from game manager to the third-rated passer in the country with 1,276 yards and 11 touchdowns with only one interception. He drove Texas to the winning touchdown on the road at Oklahoma State in the final two minutes, throwing a fourth-down pass into tight coverage on a play that would have all but ended the game with an incompletion.
That play more than any other showed how much he's grown up and taken control of the offense. Oozing confidence, Ash threw the ball in the only spot his receiver could catch it.
"If it gets picked off, who cares at that point? Gun it in there and hope the guy makes a play for you," Ash said. "You're either going to get it or you're not ... Sometimes it comes down to you've got to make a play."
Ash is a different quarterback than the raw freshman who was swamped by Oklahoma defenders last year. Ash didn't expect to play much last season but starter Garrett Gilbert was hurt in the second game and elected to transfer. Ash and McCoy split the starting role the rest of the way.
The rivalry with the Sooners, where emotions run high, can be tough even on experienced quarterbacks. Ash simply wasn't ready yet and had two of Texas' five turnovers. The Sooners had eight sacks.
"We laid an egg," Brown said. "We were out of the game before it started. It got out of hand fast."
Ash had never been to the game in person and admitted he was a bit overwhelmed.
"I don't think there's anything that can prepare you for it," Ash said, calling it his lowest point of the season and one he was determined to learn from. "Most people rebound from their lowest point. Everyone wants to get up."
Oklahoma players see a quarterback who picked himself up and got better.
"They just look very confident in everything they do," Sooners cornerback Aaron Colvin said. "It seems like the coach puts a lot of trust in him and everything kind of revolves around him. I'm very pressed with what he's been doing this year."
One thing Texas coaches liked about Ash in the loss was seeing him throw a late touchdown pass. He still split time with McCoy the rest of season, but gradually started taking over the position.
Ash has been so good this season that it made his one blunder — a big one — that much more surprising. Trailing by three late against West Virginia, Texas got the ball after a fumble at the Mountaineers 12 with a chance to take the lead with a touchdown or tie the game with a field goal.
But facing third-and-8, Ash let the play clock run down to 1, then turned his head just as the shotgun snap sailed by and the play ended in a 16-yard loss. The Longhorns missed the field goal and ended up losing 48-45.
Some fans blamed center Dominic Espinosa for the miscue. Ash took the blame but said it's time to move on.
"That was my fault. It's in the past," Ash said. "It's time to move forward. If you haven't moved forward, I have. Hop on."