By JIM VERTUNO
AP Sports Writer
AUSTIN, Texas -- There was a time Colt McCoy's voice cracked in the Texas huddle. Today, he commands it with a hard look or a stern word if needed.
The self-described "stick figure" weighed 185 pounds soaking wet just a few years ago, when his body would break down and get tired over the course of a season. That was before he added nearly 30 pounds of muscle.
The Texas quarterback also used to live and play in the shadow of Vince Young, the Texas superstar who led the Longhorns to the 2005 national championship. That was before McCoy led Texas to the No. 1 ranking and at least had the Longhorns included in the hot debate over who should play for the title this season.
Along the way, McCoy passed Young in career victories, and just like Young in 2005, is among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. Some felt this once-upon-a-time skinny country kid would never be good enough to carry a water bucket, let alone be called college football's most outstanding player after that title eluded his predecessor.
"He's been the heart of our offense," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "He means to this team what Vince Young meant to the one in 2005.
McCoy's regular season ranks among the best in school history.
With 576 rushing yards, he leads the Longhorns by 200 yards and is second on the team with 10 rushing TDs. His 3,445 yards passing and 32 touchdowns are school records, and McCoy's 77.6 percent completion rate will smash the NCAA record if he maintains it against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
He was so good that Brown says McCoy out-Tebowed Tim Tebow, Florida's 2007 Heisman winner who is also one of McCoy's rivals for the award this year.
"He's done for this team what Tim Tebow has done for Florida," Brown said. "I can't imagine a player that means more to his team than Colt does to ours."
McCoy was at his best in Texas' toughest games.
Against No. 1 Oklahoma, he rallied Texas in the second half to a 45-35 win to get the better of Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford, another top Heisman contender.
"He beat us with his arm. He beat us with his feet," Sooners defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said.
A week later against then-No. 11 Missouri, he completed all but three of his 32 passes with two touchdowns and ran for two more. A week later against No. 6 Oklahoma State, he had a season-high 391 yards passing and two scores.
Even in Texas' only loss, McCoy's two TD passes rallied the Longhorns from a 19-point deficit to take the lead with 89 seconds left before Texas Tech won on a touchdown pass from fellow Heisman contender Graham Harrell to Michael Crabtree with 1 second remaining.
Add it all up, and McCoy is 31-7 as a starter with nine career second-half comebacks.
To understand just how far McCoy has come to earn the respect of his teammates is to appreciate just how far he has come as a player.
McCoy was a solid if unspectacular recruit from the tiny West Texas ranching town of Tuscola, considered by many a backup plan when Texas didn't sign that year's big-name player, Ryan Perrilloux.
"If you saw where I played high school, you'd know why I wasn't a (big) recruit," McCoy said.
Brown, however, knew he had found a player with the potential to be special.
"We saw the same things in high school you're seeing now," Brown said. "The questions we had were: Could he get bigger and stronger? We never questioned his ability to play. He has worked really hard to answer every flaw."
When McCoy first showed up on campus, even some of his teammates weren't too impressed.
"Scrawny" is how defensive end Brian Orakpo described his look as a freshman in 2005. "Goofy," is how tailback Chris Ogbannaya put it.
Today, they call him their leader.
A coach's son, McCoy knew what he was up against in practice and the weight room. He also had the confidence to believe he could be the guy to step in when Young, one of the greatest athletes to wear burnt orange, was ready to leave.
McCoy calls his first workouts where he could only bench-press 225 pounds two times "embarrassing." He dedicated himself to strength coach Jeff "Mad Dog" Madden's high-intensity training regimen that sometimes has players flipping huge tires and throwing sledgehammers.
"I knew I had the tools. It was up to me to put them to work," said McCoy, who now benches that weight 16 times.
"He changed the whole scope of his body," Madden said. "He saw Vince Young throwing the steel around and followed him. We pushed him both mentally and physically."
McCoy spent his redshirt season watching and learning from Young, who commanded respect in the locker room and seemed effortless in his play on the field.
When Young surprised the Longhorns by bolting for the NFL in 2006, McCoy was left in charge of a huddle full of senior offensive linemen, including three future pros.
McCoy could barely even grow whiskers and "looked like he was 12" standing next to those guys, Brown said.
McCoy says he was so nervous back then he could barely speak.
"All eyes are on you. They're going to watch what you do on the field and you have to keep your head," McCoy said.
Time, victories and solid play earned him respect.
The hard workouts in the weight room not only made him bigger and stronger, but faster too. Where Tebow can smash through defenders for yards, McCoy is just as likely to run past them. But this season was notable for blows he delivered rather than ones he took.
When McCoy was a freshman, a pair of hard hits to the shoulder first knocked him out of a loss at Kansas State and then led to him being carted off the field in another defeat to Texas A&M.
This season, McCoy plowed through two defenders for a touchdown against Rice in September, then did it again against A&M two weeks ago. Against Arkansas, he outran the Razorbacks' secondary in a 35-yard burst to the end zone, Texas' longest scoring run of the season.
Despite some recent questions over whether he would consider entering the NFL draft next spring, McCoy said this week he will return for his senior season in 2009.
Getting Texas to its first regular-season No. 1 ranking since 1984 whetted McCoy's appetite for a national championship that would match the title Young won three years ago while McCoy watched from the sidelines.
"I'm not going anywhere," he said.