Belton head coach Rodney Southern saw what he was looking for when he came to practice a week ago to catch up with his former quarterback David Ash.
After a tumultuous year in which Ash was replaced as Texas' starting quarterback after five up-and-down games before starting Texas' bowl game, Southern wasn't quite sure what he'd find.
But he saw the smile, the bounce in Ash's step at practice. He saw the rifle arm. And most of all, he saw the ball.
In high school, Ash carried a football everywhere. Just tossing the ball up in the air and catching it. On the bus to school. Between classes. After school.
One year after enrolling early at Texas as the fourth quarterback on the depth chart behind Garrett Gilbert, Case McCoy and Connor Wood and then going through an unpredictable, and at times, unforgiving ride, Southern was worried Ash might have lost his childlike love for football.
But there it was.
"He still had that football everywhere he went - between drills at practice, hanging around his dorm room, even sometimes when he went out to eat," Southern said.
Southern knew how hard it was on Ash after starting five games and throwing six interceptions without a TD pass. Then getting benched for Case McCoy in UT's biggest win of the season - at Texas A&M - before returning to the starting lineup against Cal in the Holiday Bowl and winning offensive MVP honors.
"He won't tell you everything he's learned," Southern said. "But one of the things I think he finally understood is that once you get to that level at Texas, it's a job. It's still a game, but in this process, it's a job. And he told me this spring, 'I've finally started to grasp what you were talking about.'
"I think he'll use that and he's going to be what everyone down there expects him to be in terms of their starting quarterback. He's definitely got all the tools."
'SHELTERED' UPBRINGING: There was reason for Southern to be concerned about how Ash would handle the adversity of his freshman season at Texas.
According to Southern, Ash led a sheltered life growing up as one of six children born to Stephen and Lynn Ash.
There was a TV in the house, but no cable. The TV had a DVD player, and the family rented DVDs - like the Andy Griffith Show, Hogan's Heroes and The Cosby Show.
"We never got the TV signal because we didn't consider it like a refrigerator that you really do need," said Stephen Ash, the principal of Academy Middle School. "I never saw a compelling reason to have a TV signal.
"The kids read a lot, and we watched some videos. We'd watch movies we'd rent. We did different kinds of things. David liked to go outside and throw the football a lot."
The Ash kids worked in their uncle's dairy farm in Belton. And David was handy. When David was 9, his parents built their own house in Academy. David would watch the grownups hammering nails and anticipate when they needed another nail and hand them to the adults.
"At 9 years old, he was a really good hand," his dad said.
A STAR IS BORN: David's father got him throwing a football at a young age. Stephen Ash and his two brothers played football at Belton, and David picked football over basketball in eighth grade.
"The first day he walked into our athletic period the spring of his freshman year, we were doing some football drills," Southern said. "David walked over to where we had three quarterbacks throwing and I watched him throw one time and said, 'There's our starting quarterback right there.'"
Ash had his best season as a junior, going 10-2 as a starter before suffering a high ankle sprain as a senior that plagued him through a key, four-game stretch of his final year, when Belton went 5-6.
BECOMING A LONGHORN: Texas A&M and Baylor were the early leaders for Ash, but then Texas entered the picture, and Ash immediately wanted to be a Longhorn.
"When he committed to Texas, it was under the assumption he would at least redshirt and have some time to get acclimated and learn the college ropes," Stephen Ash said. "Things developed, and he was called upon to play.
"He worked hard, had ups and downs and learned a lot. I think he has made a lot of good progress."
Southern had no idea how David's upbringing in a small town would affect how Ash handled the turbulence of his freshman season, not to mention the social climate of a massive university.
"David comes from a very structured, very religious family with a tremendous belief system," Southern said. "I think he embodies what they believe. Things in their life revolved around church and that helped build his character. A tremendous kid, a tremendous family."
UNSHAKEABLE FAITH: Southern said even though Ash may have been brought up differently from most of the kids on scholarship at Texas, his faith is unshakeable.
"He was sheltered in terms of what a lot of people considered normal," Southern said. "You can tell the Ash family believes. They don't quiver. They are up front. 'It doesn't matter what you think, this is how we think, and we're very strong in it.' They don't quiver. It doesn't matter what you believe, this is what he and his family believe.
"There are things that happened in a locker room when no one is there that David Ash probably never heard before. Whether you call that sheltered or structured or smart or whatever word you want to use, that was his upbringing, and I think you have to really look at that because that's him. That's his personality."
Southern said Ash keeps a lot of what he believes to himself and prefers to do most of his talking with his actions.
"I think you have to look at how hard the kid works in other areas, and I think you'll see a difference this year," Southern said. "I know I saw it in the day he practiced from the standpoint of, 'This kid can lead us if we'll just get behind him.'
"He may not scream and yell and carry on, but he's going to put in the time and work to do what you have to do at quarterback at Texas."
Stephen Ash said David was probably the most talkative of his six children - three girls and three boys - ranging in age from 30 to 16.
"I think his faith helped him," Stephen Ash said. "We talked about not being arrogant and acknowledging where your gifts come from. I think that helps him stay in harmony. But at the same time I think he realizes he has some gifts and that if he works hard, some good things will happen.
"We talked a little bit about, often times, you have to go through the valley before you get to the mountain top. You have to go through it. You can't go around it. I kept encouraging him. I expected it would take some time and he'd work his way through it."
A FATHER'S PERSPECTIVE: David Ash said recently when he struggles in football he turns to his father, who taught him to how to throw.
For Stephen Ash, it was difficult to watch his son struggle, at times, last year. But it made him even more proud as a father to see David bounce back against Cal in the Holiday Bowl.
"He's a tough kid," Stephen Ash said. "He went through some tough times, you could see that he was pressing. I don't know how much confidence is a part of pressing.
"I think it's a factor when people press. And he was pressing some. And we talked about that and how not to press and how to relax and throw the football. When you press, you grip it a little harder and hold it a little longer."
Stephen Ash said David now knows what co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin expects of him as the quarterback.
"It's something that's evolved and continues to evolve in a positive direction," Stephen Ash said of David's relationship with Harsin. "I think it's probably a similar evolution to every quarterback who comes to college and tries to find their way."
A COACH'S PERSPECTIVE: Harsin said he likes what he's seen of Ash so far this spring. Harsin hasn't told Ash he's the guy at quarterback after Ash's come-from-behind, Holiday Bowl performance, which featured a 47-yard TD pass to Marquise Goodwin in the third quarter that put Texas head for good - 14-10 - in a 21-10 victory.
But Harsin said he hasn't had to rebuild Ash's confidence, either.
"David's a confident guy," Harsin said. "It was just going back and getting a realistic approach to some of those scenarios and games that weren't good. What was bad about it? Well, maybe it was footwork, or mechanic or you were late. That's really what it is.
"And just going back in our film study for the spring and even in the bowl practices, it really helped us to go back and re-evaluate those games that he struggled in and figure out why and understand it. I thought in the bowl practices, I thought you could see things in his mind starting to click about, 'What's my job? What's my responsibility out there as a quarterback?'
"It started to make more sense. He started to feel more comfortable with what we were doing. That's really it. He's taken the next step in his preparation before we got into spring practice of studying the system and having a better understanding of the expectations for these plays and in these situations."
BATTLING A MCCOY: Of all people, David Ash found himself competing with the younger brother of Texas legend Colt McCoy - Case McCoy.
"It can be pretty intense," Stephen Ash said. "But we just talked a lot about how you just have to persevere. There's that saying what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
"But it would probably be a good idea that he stay free of the Internet," Ash added with a laugh.
Both Ash and McCoy have said they have a great relationship with each other - one that fans probably expect to be contentious and ugly but is instead supportive and constructive.
"I helped recruit David here," McCoy said. "I want to see him do well. We both want that for each other and for Texas."
When Stephen Ash talks to his son now he hears a more confident person.
"He understands now what's expected of him and understands the offense better," Stephen Ash said. "When you walk up to the line and you're facing a formidable foe and you're still trying to remember what you're supposed to do and what everyone else is supposed to do, you're thinking about making sure you know what the play is and how to do the play. Then you have to also think about what the defense is doing. That's a lot.
"Now, I think he knows the offense a lot better. That will kind of be in place and he can focus more on reading the defense and making decisions. I think that helps a lot."
David Ash said as much this spring.
"At any D-1 college like Texas there should be competition at quarterback. If there isn't, something is wrong or one quarterback has taken it to another level. I haven't reached that level yet. But winning the bowl game was definitely a positive," David Ash said.
"I learned a lot last season, and I'm taking a lot into this season, but it's a fresh start. You never stop learning. But my comfort level with the offense is a lot better.
"I'm getting a better grasp of the offense and getting it to a point where the offense wasn't even a thought and my only thought is on the defense, the calls and adjustments I would make at the line."
PERSONALITY TRAITS: Southern said David Ash will bring a different kind of leadership to the quarterback position at Texas.
"David doesn't want to make a mistake," Southern said. "He wants to lead. The way he wants to lead is by showing everyone how hard he's working. He's not an extremely vocal kid. He's not going to be screaming and hollering and he's never uttered a cuss word.
"So he's not going to lead in a fiery type way. But he likes to work and likes to study and if you watch him do those things, he'll try to lead in other forms.
"And I'd say his personality is a little introverted because of his family background. He came from a very small area in a very structured situation. Then, suddenly, as an 18-year-old freshman trying to lead a group of guys, 90 percent of whom are more experienced than you are."
Junior-to-be offensive lineman Mason Walters was one of those older players. Walters joked when Ash was up on stage accepting his offensive MVP award at the Holiday Bowl, "Who gave him the microphone?"
Walters would say later that Ash was a little awkward in a leadership role last yeart, but that is now changing.
"He's commanding the huddle and people are listening when he talks," Walters said. "It's a nice change. I think everyone is going to enjoy watching him grow and play for the next few years."
Southern saw Ash growing in confidence this spring as well.
"And I think it's a work in progress," Southern said. "He looked better to me after watching him in spring practice. He's more confident. I think he understands what Bryan Harsin wants. He was with my coordinator here for three and a half years. So you have to figure out what each other needs.
"David wants, when he comes off the field, he wants to be corrected immediately. He likes communication with the coordinator. He wants to know what he's doing right and doing wrong.
"They are more on the same page than they were at this time last year. He's a bigger stronger kid and definitely more confident."