The yellow jersey Chad Davis wears during spring drills at Washington State University is the football equivalent of the caution flag.
Ease off the throttle. Hold your positions.
So much for March madness. The great quarterback rumpus that was supposed to enliven spring ball has, apparently, been pre-empted.
When we last heard from Chad Davis, he was peeling himself off the turf to collect the Alamo Bowl MVP trophy and scoffing at the notion that he might not be WSU’s starting quarterback in 1995.
The wicked licks he took over the last half of the ‘94 season stung less than the prospect of coach Mike Price taking applications for the job this spring to accommodate the ambitions of precocious Ryan Leaf.
For outsiders, it isn’t hard to see Leaf’s appeal. He is a strapping kid, possessed of a slingshot, who had the good fortune to redshirt while Davis was deputized to manufacture touchdowns without so much as a rumor of a running attack. Leaf also had a lot of fans on WSU’s veteran defense and hinted at blowing town if he wasn’t going to get a legitimate shot.
Having dodged the debate then, Price is having his say now.
He’s keeping Davis out of contact drills as a precaution - X-rays a couple of weeks after the Alamo Bowl turned up two cracked vertebrae. But he’s also keeping Davis No. 1.
Or rather, Davis is.
“I would like to keep it open - I like to keep all positions open during the spring,” Price said. “But to be honest, Chad’s done more work over the off-season than the other kids.
“His timing is better, his mechanics are better. He’s throwing the ball better than he ever has and he’s farther ahead. Maybe the 12 games he started has something to do with it, but the other guys should have jumped to the lead and outworked him. They didn’t do it.”
Davis’ resolve may be his best attribute. He is a drone for film study, began throwing on his own to Cougars receivers four weeks before spring ball and went through winter conditioning, even when it was suggested he sit it out.
Besides, the other guys - Leaf and Miguel Meriwether - “are freshmen who don’t know how to work yet,” Price said.
But if Price was sincere in saying he wanted to keep the job open this spring, Davis understood it differently.
“Last year, I had to come out and prove myself,” he said. “This year, he told me I wasn’t competing for a job, that he wanted me to work on three things to get better and that he couldn’t afford to have me hurt.”
True enough. Loaded with spare parts last spring, the quarterback position comes stripped down now.
Shawn Deeds, whose Cougar career crested with a win in relief over Cal in 1993, is playing baseball. Chad DeGrenier, who was redshirted last year precisely so Wazzu would have some veteran depth, opted to transfer to Midwestern State in Texas so he could play.
“People don’t realize it, but that really hurts our football team,” Price insisted, “especially after I made the commitment not to take Brad Otton (the Weber State transfer who wound up at USC).”
And yet there is an upside. With fewer quarterbacks and with Davis excused from contact, the two freshmen will get more repetitions and more work with the first-unit offense. This is where Leaf stands to make his gains - especially against a defense that figures to have lost some snarl.
“The Ron Childses, the Mark Fieldses, the Torey Hunters are gone,” Davis said. “I know going against those guys and taking their hits and throwing interceptions made me better, but it’s good to have some success, too.”
There is a tendency to put an asterisk next to Davis’ success last fall. The Cougars won eight games, not because of what he did but what he didn’t do - turn the ball over. Wazzu had exactly 12 touchdown drives of more than 50 yards in as many games.
Grading himself, Davis settles on “B-minus, C-plus.”
“To throw for 2,300 yards is pretty good, especially considering we could not run the ball at all. Teams started rushing three or four people and dropping seven or eight and you’re not going to get the ball thrown downfield that way. Also, I was hurt the last four weeks of the season to the point I could barely walk.”
He is well aware, too, that two of his noted predecessors, Timm Rosenbach and Drew Bledsoe, made massive gains in their second seasons as starters in this system.
“I think I’ll be better - there’s no reason I shouldn’t be,” he said. “Things look slower out there now. Maybe it does take a year to really understand the offense.”
The three areas Price challenged Davis to improve: looking off receivers, not bouncing in the pocket, speeding up his delivery.
Leadership, Price obviously feels, is not a concern.
“It would bother a normal guy, the comments about giving the job to a guy who had never taken a snap,” Davis said. “I knew where I stood. Coach Price told me I had a hell of a year and I wasn’t sitting with the best hand at the poker table. I just needed to hear it from him.”
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