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Will Texas Offense Rise From Ash's Experience?

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Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

If you want to trace it back to the beginning, if you want to put the blame on somebody, then Jan. 27, 2010, is probably the place for you and Marcell Dareus is your culprit.

Five plays into the national championship game between Texas and Alabama, Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy kept the ball on an option and Dareus hit him. McCoy pinched a nerve in his throwing shoulder and sat out the remainder of the night that belonged to the Crimson Tide.

The premature end of McCoy’s record-setting career was the start of the much-anticipated reign of Garrett Gilbert, a hometown, five-star recruit many presumed would keep things going, but probably do even better.

Things have only gotten worse for the Longhorns, but 2013 may be the season things go back to the way they were. They have what they have lacked and what no one else in the Big 12 has this spring. It may be what matters most.

It’s been a struggle to get to this most optimistic point, though. Gilbert went 7-7 as a starter, lost his job early in the 2011 season and ultimately transferred to SMU. He was replaced interchangeably by Case McCoy and David Ash the past two seasons. Since being ranked No. 2 for that BCS title game against Alabama, Texas is 22-16 overall and 11-15 in conference play.

It’s unlike Texas and unlike Mack Brown. Since the Big 12 started in 1996, Texas had the first-team all-conference quarterback three times and Major Applewhite, Vince Young and Colt McCoy were each the Big 12’s offensive player of the year. Since Brown arrived in 1998, he won his division six times, reached four BCS games and twice played for a national title, beating USC after the 2005 season.

The Longhorns finished last in their division in 2010 and missed postseason play, tied for sixth in the one-division conference in 2011 and finished third in the 2012 standings.

It’s not fair to blame it on the quarterbacks, especially when Gilbert’s misgivings forced Ash and McCoy into early action in 2011 and when the defense did so much damage in 2012.

Still, the Longhorns haven’t had stability at the position and haven’t competed for a conference title, never mind a national title, since that Dareus hit.

Meanwhile, Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III were the last two Heisman Trophy winners and Andrew Luck was twice a runner up before he was taken No. 1 in the 2012 draft. They were all Texas high school stars, but went elsewhere at a time when the population of spread offenses and passing quarterbacks exploded in that state to better prepare players for college.

The search may be over and Texas may have something at the most critical position in the Big 12, which has had teams sprinkled throughout the top 25 total and passing offenses the last three seasons.

Ash, through more downs than ups, is the starting quarterback this season. Look around the conference and no one has that certainty. There are teams, like Iowa State or Texas Tech, that may have a name, but it is surrounded by unknowns. Ash’s is shrouded with promise.

Even with the Longhorns finishing 9-5 overall and 5-4 in the Big 12, Ash was No. 21 nationally in passer efficiency last season and completed 67.3 percent of his passes. Only WVU’s Geno Smith, likely the first quarterback to be taken in next month’s draft, and Texas Tech’s Seth Doege were sharper, though Ash was better in yards per attempt.

Remember, too, the defense was troubled and allowed an all-time worst 404.2 yards per game and third-most points per game. They were punching bags and eventually punch lines, a sad state best captured by the witty experts at The Solid Verbal.

“Texas has its own Harlem Shake video, but instead of mass dancing, players all start missing tackles at the drop,” they wrote in Twitter in March.

In a risky gamble, Brown is not only going to test Ash this season, but the defense, too, and bring Texas closer to the modern model. The Longhorns averaged 68.5 plays per game last season, No. 8 in the Big 12 and more than 11 fewer snaps than the league average.

Bryan Harsin left the coaching staff in December to coach Arkansas State and Applewhite took over as the play-caller before the bowl game against Oregon State. In the bowl practices, the Longhorns started to do some of the things they’ll do this season and spread the offense more and played with greater tempo between plays.

Texas outscored the Beavers 21-7 in the second half and Ash completed 9 of 11 passes for 146 yards and two scores in the fourth quarter, when the scoreboard forced the Longhorns to play quicker and pass more.  

There are two sides to this, though, and playing quicker either means scoring quicker or punting quicker. Either way, the defense figures to be on the field more and that’s not exactly comforting to Longhorn fans who saw their defense on the field for only two fewer plays than their offense in 2012.

Yet Texas returns nine defensive starters and has all its linebackers and cornerbacks back, a particularly important luxury in the conference, and the experience going against its new, speedy offense can only make life easier against Big 12 opponents.

There are questions throughout the conference, but Texas has answers others do not – and we haven’t even mentioned that the two leading receivers who caught 13 of the team’s 25 touchdown passes or the top three running backs who combined for 138 yards per game and each averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry are all returning.

It’s been a while since the Longhorns have been the Big 12’s best, but they’ll be in a hurry to get back to the top.