During my conversation with Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis, two things became evidently clear. Firstly, that he understands what it will take to get to the next level. Secondly, that he’ll do what it takes to get there.
Davis is the most prolific quarterback in Southern Miss history. He holds several school records, including most passing touchdowns (53).
That record formerly belonged to Brett Favre.
He enters his senior season looking to guide the Golden Eagles to a conference title, all the while impressing on-looking NFL scouts. He’s on the Davey O’Brien watch-list and will only improve his reputation if he can lead a developing and increasingly talented Southern Miss roster to an unbeaten season, something that’s well within their reach.
“I’ve just had a great experience. I’ve loved going to college here, I’ve loved playing football here and there’d be nothing that would make it more sweet than to go out and win a Championship this year.”
I wanted to speak to Davis in advance of all the serious draft talk. In many ways, this is the best opportunity we get to find out about the real person underneath the helmet. Everything a player says and does during draft time is scrutinised and they’re fully aware of that daunting situation. Quarterbacks in particular get a grilling because teams want to know they can trust these guys not only to be the face of their franchise off the field, but also the leader on it.
Answers end up being rehearsed, staged and repeated. Players tred on egg shells and wax lyrical about character, leadership and such like. It’s comparable to a series of job interviews, just filmed and recorded for thousands of people to observe and judge.
I didn’t need to have had any of those concerns when speaking to Davis. This is a guy who talks so naturally and passionately about the game and his teammates. You can tell he’s ambitious and wants to play at the next level, but he’s equally aware that the opportunity won’t be gift wrapped and delivered to his front door. When he spoke about being a leader, competing and working to achieve his goals – it was done with maximum sincerity. I suspect that will remain throughout the process of going from college performer to NFL athlete.
“The biggest thing is to be a winner and to be a guy that people want on their team. You can’t do anything about your height, you can’t do anything about a lot of things. You can do something about your attitude, your work ethic and your mentality towards the game. That’s one thing I want to excel at and be the best at. I want to win games and I want to lead this team.”
I asked him about the Manning Academy which took place earlier this month. Davis attended along with a lot of the big names in college football including Andrew Luck, Landry Jones and Kirk Cousins. He left an impression, reportedly drawing rave reviews from Archie Manning. In the ‘Air it Out’ competition at the camp (which tests quarterbacks to hit moving targets) Davis progressed through two rounds to make the final, where he competed against Oklahoma’s Jones and eventual winner Collier Winters from Harvard.
“We had a little competition where we got to throw some routes and I felt good. I guess being from Southern Miss we haven’t really done anything on the national scene yet. We haven’t won a conference championship so it’s kind of tougher to get your name out there. Just to be in that exposure gives you a chance to compete and that’s what I love to do. I thought it went well.”
“Any time you get a chance to show people what you can do, you never know who’s going to be watching for the first time so I didn’t take it lightly, I wanted to have a good showing so hopefully I did that.”
The training academy was a worthwhile experience for many reasons – a chance to work with Peyton and Eli of course, but also to spend some time with the other young signal callers who will make up the 2012 draft class.
“I just really enjoyed getting to know all the guys, all the quarterbacks around the country that I know I’ll be coming out with. Guys that I’ll be competing with to play at the next level, but at the same time guys I can keep up with this season. I think that will be the neatest thing, just being able to put the TV on every Saturday whenever we’re not playing and be like ‘hey – I know that guy’. I can text him and tell him good luck or good game and just kind of create almost a fraternity of quarterbacks around the nation.”
And on having the chance to work with two of the NFL’s best?
“That was so special. Just kind of surreal at first but once you’d got to hanging out with them and talking ball you realise they’re guys just like we are. They really helped us out a lot, we had a chance to sit down with them for an hour session and just kind of pick their brain and ask them how they studied film. It was really a beneficial time for us as college quarterbacks.”
There’s a lot to like about Davis from a pro-perspective. In the 2011 draft, six quarterbacks were taken in the first 36 picks - all with a certain degree of mobility. Davis is a similar athlete, capable of making plays to compliment the running game or by extending plays in the pocket. We’ve witnessed the Seahawks focus on mobility with their quarterback additions most recently and more than ever teams are looking for guys who can move around and if needed, get out of harm’s way.
He acknowledges the importance of arm strength and says he’s worked to get stronger in anticipation of the next step. He played at around 208lbs last season, but has added weight to increase his overall strength. It should pay off when the season begins.
“It’s probably my biggest improvement of the summer. I’m right at 220lbs now. I’m probably going to get down after fall camp, I’m probably going to lose a little weight just because we’re working so hard. I’ll try to play at 215lbs because I’m going to have to run the ball in this offense so I’m just going to try and stay a little lower than I think I would play at the next level. But as far as college goes I want to be 210-215lbs.”
Of course it’s not just about physical qualities and the NFL demands a high degree of accuracy. It’s a contradictory storm of needing your pro-quarterback to take chances and make things happen down the field, while also viewing turnovers as the cardinal sin. Luckily, Davis is already speaking with a level of maturity about that situation.
“Just from day one my coaches have just preached to me about protecting the football and not throwing interceptions so I’ve always tried to be a quarterback that’s always smart with the football. I guess some people call it conservative, but I call it smart football. I know if we hold onto the ball then we’re going to win a lot of games and there’s going to be a lot of big plays that guys are going to make around me.”
It’s advice that’s worked well so far. Davis only had six interceptions last year and has 16 for his career overall – a total some quarterbacks will throw in a single season. He was still able to achieve a healthy seven yards per attempt in 2010 while recording 3103 passing yards and completing 63% of his passes. His twenty passing scores were enhanced by a further ten on the ground – and he even managed a spectacular touchdown reception on a trick play in the Beef O’Brady Bowl defeat to Louisville. When you’re scoring 31 touchdowns in a season and only throwing six interceptions, you’re doing something right as a quarterback.
Thankfully his skills on the field are superior to those on NCAA 12. Davis admitted he was currently 0-2 with Southern Miss in career mode, of course taking control of himself at quarterback. “If I throw a pick, I’m like ‘I can’t do this anymore, I need to play with somebody else’.”
They may happen on NCAA 12, but interceptions are not something the Golden Eagles fans have come accustomed to seeing from the real life version of Austin Davis. While he himself has touched on the possibility of people suggesting it’s a conservative approach, that’s not the impression I had when watching Southern Miss. He’s a capable passer who won’t be physically restricted at the next level. His level of focus in limiting turnovers is purely another positive and something he’ll have to take into the NFL to succeed.
If you’re afforded the opportunity to watch Southern Miss in the upcoming new season of college football, I implore you to take the opportunity to take a look at their quarterback. Next year’s draft class at the postion is already being vaunted by the media, largely due to the hype surrounding Andrew Luck (most of which is fully deserved of course).
However, there are other guys out there and Davis in particular deserves just as much attention as Kirk Cousins at Michigan State. Of course, there’s still a lot of football to be played before the process begins again next year – and Davis understands the importance of taking things one step at a time. The NFL, for now at least, will have to wait.
“I think I would be lying if I said it didn’t come into my mind. Coming into my senior year that is the next step and I’m really looking forward to that opportunity.”
“But at the same time, I think it’s very important that I don’t get too wrapped up in that and forget what I have here. I have another season here and everything I want to accomplish is far more important. If the NFL happens, it will happen later. What I have going on this year and with this team is really the most important thing.”
“I’ve never been to a NFL game and last year I thought about it, but then I decided no, the first NFL game I go to I want to be playing, so that’s my goal.”
I believe he will achieve that goal.