By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
It was about this time last year when pro scouts, coaches and front-office executives became enamored with a University of Maryland player who had decided to leave the school after his junior season to enter the NFL draft. They went from liking Shawne Merriman to loving him when they found out just how big, strong, fast and agile he was. The linebacker ended up being selected 12th overall in last spring's draft and was named the league's defensive rookie of the year for the San Diego Chargers.
Now, as tight end Vernon Davis prepares to attend the NFL's scouting combine this week in Indianapolis, those in and around the Terrapins football team figure talent evaluators are about to be wowed again.
"I'm sure they keep records at the combine," Ray Rychleski, Maryland's tight ends coach, said last week, "and I think he's going to end up in the all-time top five in just about every category."
It is the time of the year when the players eligible for the draft jockey for position based not on what they do on a football field, but on how fast they can run a 40-yard dash, how high they can jump, how much weight they can lift, how they fare on an intelligence test and how deftly they can answer questions posed by team officials during face-to-face interviews. Millions of dollars are at stake, and Davis begins the process saying he's confident that he will be one of the first 10 players drafted in April.
"Somewhere in the top 10 -- that's what I'm expecting," Davis said. "I'm not nervous at all, just excited. I'm not really the kind of person who gets too nervous. I'm ready to get going with it."
Davis has someone to do the fretting for him -- his grandmother, Adaline. "He says he's not nervous," she said, "but I'm nervous. I've been nervous since the day he started playing football. I didn't like football, and I didn't want him to play football. I'm still nervous about it. He calls me after every game to tell me he's all right. But every time I see his number pop up, I get nervous that something's wrong."
Adaline Davis raised Vernon and his five siblings -- including his younger brother Vontae, an all-Met defensive back at Dunbar High School who is headed to the University of Illinois -- at her home in Northwest Washington. She would shuttle Vernon to basketball games and practices when he was young, and he would promise her that it would pay off someday. He was wrong about the sport, but right about the outcome. Vernon managed to steer clear of trouble by disassociating himself in the eighth grade with his friends who seemed well on their way to drug-related problems.
"He came home one night and said, 'I don't have any friends,' " Adaline Davis said. "I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because all of them want to sell or use.' I told him, 'Let them know they're still your friends, but you're not going to do what they do.' He wanted something better."
He found it as a sophomore at Dunbar, when he began playing football. College recruiters quickly took notice, and Davis had his pick of high-profile college teams. He chose Maryland to be close to home and to play in Coach Ralph Friedgen's pro-style offense. After a freshman season devoted to figuring out how things worked at the college level, Davis spent two seasons showing he was a tight end who could get down the field and make catches. He totaled 78 receptions over his last two seasons, including 51 as a junior. He informed his grandmother after a November win at North Carolina that he intended to bypass his senior season to enter the draft.
"He said, 'I know you want me to stay another year. But you have to realize, I'm doing all this for you,' " she said. "That really touched me. I said, 'If you want to come out to play football, come out. If you want to come out for the money, don't do that. I'll support you no matter what you decide.' "
Davis said he told Friedgen during a midseason conversation that he'd leave if the draft advisory board set up for college players contemplating an early jump to the NFL gave him a first-round grade after the season. It did, and he made his decision official. Rychleski said he admires the maturity with which Davis handled the decision but regrets that Davis, an art major, won't graduate in four years, as he was on course to do if he'd stayed.
"I just wanted it all for him," Rychleski said.
Davis has been in the Phoenix area since Christmas, training for the combine and Maryland's pro day for scouts. He said his goals are to run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, perform a vertical leap of at least 40 inches and do at least 30 lifts of a 225-pound weight bar when he gets his chance in front of the scouts. Those would be impressive feats indeed for a player listed at 6 feet 3 and 253 pounds, and would give Davis the sort of boost in his pre-draft status that Merriman got after his workouts last year.
Davis and Merriman remained in touch last fall after pushing one another with regular competitions on the practice field and in the weight room at Maryland. Asked which of the two prevailed more often, Davis said, "You're talking to him."
Said Rychleski: "Shawne would win some. But Vernon won quite a bit himself. . . . In the weight room, I'm taking Vernon."
Davis can only hope the rest of the pre-draft process is as kind to him as it was to Merriman.
"He's special," Rychleski said. "Whoever gets him is going to get a guy who's probably going to play 10 or 15 years in that league at a very high level."