Late in the second quarter Saturday, Joel Statham completed a pass to Vernon Davis, who galloped 33 yards toward the end zone and in the direction of Florida State cornerback Bryant McFadden.
Waiting for Davis to arrive, McFadden stood his ground inside the Seminoles 5. At this point, Davis said, he had to decide in an instant whether to lower his shoulder and barrel over McFadden or jump over the 6-defender player, the latter not an option for most tight ends.
Easy decision. Davis high-jumped 6 feet 5 in high school and had a 38-inch vertical leap that is even higher now that he's a 20-year-old college sophomore. Davis jumped and nearly cleared McFadden's helmet, landing at the 2 and setting up Maryland's first touchdown in its 20-17 victory.
"When I get in the open field, they might mistake me as a regular tight end that can just run straight," Davis said. "I can shake people and make people miss."
Davis had one of his most complete games of the season against Florida State, when he had a career-high six catches for 99 yards against one of the strongest defenses in the country. The performance begs the question: Why can't he do it every game?
Davis's physical attributes are indisputable. He can run a 4.5 40-yard dash and bench press 410 pounds, and he stands 6-3. But he has been inconsistent this season -- expected to be a breakout year for the Dunbar High graduate -- for reasons that extend beyond his own play.
The offensive line has not protected the quarterback as well as needed for much of the season. Statham, who has started all eight games, has struggled mightily at times but has played well during the past two, which includes a 10-7 loss at Clemson.
And Davis, at times, has dropped deep passes and run improper routes. The biggest difference, coaches said, in Davis's play of late is that he is learning the difference between attacking a man defense and a zone defense. Referencing one route Davis ran successfully against Florida State, offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said, "Against North Carolina State, he had no concept how to run that route."
Against a zone, Davis must settle into an open pocket. Against press-man coverage, he must shake a defender, be it a linebacker or safety, with his speed. Davis said Clemson, which held Davis to one catch for four yards, provided the most difficult press-man coverage.
"With linebackers, you use your speed to beat them," Davis said. "With safeties, you have to use both your speed and your mind."
Before the season, Friedgen expected Davis to get close to 30 catches this season. He has 20 with three games remaining. Friedgen also said Davis had the potential of a young Kellen Winslow, which was part of the reason why Davis was moved to H-back, where he can line up at fullback, tight end or receiver. The coaching staff expected Davis's size and speed would prove a difficult matchup for defenses.
"Like a lot of our young players," Friedgen said, "he's growing."
Davis was recruited by several high-profile schools, including Florida and Virginia, which will host Maryland on Saturday. Friedgen acknowledged that "getting him was a big get for us."
Friedgen never truly worried about another school swooping in and prying Davis away from his commitment. There was only one moment of mild anxiety, when Davis's grandmother called Friedgen and said, "We have a problem."
The problem: Friedgen wasn't calling Davis by his nickname "Duke" when he referenced the player during radio interviews. "Everybody knows him only as Duke," Davis's grandmother said. Davis's father is Big Duke. Davis, even at 239 pounds, is considered Little Duke.
Davis had his best game this season against the team that bears his nickname. Davis had four catches for 101 yards and three touchdowns in Maryland's 55-21 victory against Duke on Sept. 25. After that game, Davis said he felt as if no one could tackle him and that he expected the game to springboard the rest of his season.
In the following three games, all losses, Davis had only four catches for 38 yards. He acknowledged this week that his primary goal for the rest of the season was to "remain focused." He said his focus suffered, and he became rattled during the three-game losing streak.
"I tend to get mad," he said. "I get bothered."
Terrapin Notes: Friedgen said representatives from the Peach Bowl told him after Saturday's victory that, should Maryland win its three remaining games, the Terps could finish second in the Atlantic Coast Conference and possibly be destined for the Peach Bowl with a 7-4 record.