DALLAS -- When quarterback David Ash joined Texas' football team in 2011, the then-freshman was a little bit starstruck.
Three starting quarterbacks at rival Big 12 schools -- Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill -- would become NFL first-round draft choices after the 2011 season and NFL starters as rookies. Griffin won the 2011 Heisman Trophy and was the No. 2 pick of the Washington Redskins. A fourth quarterback, Landry Jones, set nearly every passing record at Oklahoma and was a fourth-round choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers this past spring. Two years later, every one of those quarterbacks has moved on. Ash, a junior from Belton, Texas, is suddenly an elder statesman among Big 12 passers, albeit with 18 starts in two seasons.
"When I came in there were a bunch of good quarterbacks and now they're all gone," Ash said. "Now, it's like I'm the old guy."
Of the 10 teams in the Big 12, only three schools will bring back their starting quarterbacks from the 2012 season, and two of them (Oklahoma State's Clint Chelf and TCU's Trevone Boykin) are in danger of losing their jobs when preseason camp opens early next month.
In a league that is annually driven by quarterbacks (three have won the Heisman Trophy since 2003) and fast-paced spread offenses, several teams are still undecided about who is going to start at the most important position on the field. While schools such as Baylor (Bryce Petty) and Kansas (BYU transfer Jake Heaps) have obvious successors under center, teams like Oklahoma, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Kansas State might not name a starter until shortly before their season openers.
There are Texas-sized shoes to fill in the Big 12. The departed quarterbacks were some of the most prolific passers in the country. Texas Tech's Seth Doege, West Virginia's Geno Smith and Jones ranked among the top-five quarterbacks in the FBS, and in 2011, Baylor's Nick Florence was the fourth Big 12 quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards with at least 30 touchdowns. Kansas State's Collin Klein accounted for more than 3,500 yards of offense and 39 touchdowns and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting last season.
"You're going to lose good players in college football," said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who has three players battling for the starting quarterback job, including FSU transfer Clint Trickett. "It happens every single year. Geno is going to be a great pro. We're in the same situation as, I think, seven or eight other Big 12 schools right now. The quarterback play in the Big 12 last year was phenomenal, and it's always going to be phenomenal. It's just going to be with newer people."
And with only a handful of familiar faces. Ash, who threw for 2,699 yards with 19 touchdowns in 2012, might be the only returning Big 12 quarterback who is guaranteed a starting job. TCU's Casey Pachall was ranked among the country's leading passers last season, throwing for 948 yards with 10 touchdowns in four games before he missed the final nine contests after a DWI arrest. Pachall underwent addiction treatment and then returned to TCU this past spring spring. He will continue battling Boykin for the starting job in preseason camp. TCU coach Gary Patterson hasn't ruled out playing both quarterbacks this coming season.
"Casey is a very talented young man," Patterson said. "How he handles everything and does will be an indication of how well we do in the Big 12. If you want to play well in the Big 12, you've got to play well at quarterback. Even last year, when Trevone played well, we won. When he didn't play well, we lost, and you've got to play good defense. So having a Casey Pachall back, I think he was the No. 1-ranked quarterback after four games when we set him aside, if he comes back and plays at that level, it gives us a better chance to win."
Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy faces a similar dilemma. Gundy hasn't decided whether senior Clint Chelf or sophomore J.W. Walsh will start the Cowboys' opener against Mississippi State on Aug. 31. Both players started multiple games last season, along with then-freshman Wes Lunt, who transferred to Illinois after spring practice.
"I've been watching skill players from the Big 12 all summer," Patterson said. "Everybody does a good job. In these offenses, it seems like the next guy plugged in has done a great job. Just look at Oklahoma State, they play three of them, and they all did a great job. I think you should just prepare for the worst. Being a defensive guy a little bit, you'd better prepare for the worst and hope for the best in that deal."
Defending Big 12 champion Kansas State must replace Klein, who accounted for a whopping 79 touchdowns the past two seasons. Sophomore Daniel Sams, who ran for 235 yards in relief last season, and junior-college transfer Jake Waters are battling for the starting job.
Oklahoma has a three-man race between Blake Bell, Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson.
New Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, a former Red Raiders quarterback, will choose between sophomore Michael Brewer and freshman Davis Webb.
Kingsbury can only hope that his starter plays as well as the first-year starter he coached as Texas A&M's offensive coordinator last season, Johnny Manziel. Manziel didn't win the starting job until preseason camp, but became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
"Having worked with a younger guy last year, first time starter, you learn the good and bad and how much he can handle, how much you can put on him," Kingsbury said. "Obviously, he was an exceptional case, but it definitely helps dealing with a first-time starter last year. You don't know how they're going to react when the lights come on. How do they keep plays alive? How do they lead when things are going bad? There are definitely a lot of those elements. Hopefully, it turns out like it did last year for us and makes it a lot of fun."
Kingsbury won't be the only Big 12 coach holding his breath in 2013.