- Adam Rittenberg, College Football
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Brady Hoke never took his eyes off the field, even though he had watched the scene unfold countless times before.
As the defensive line coach at Michigan from 1995-2002, Hoke knew what happened to young quarterbacks at the Big House. Their voice would quiver, their hands would shake, their passes would wobble and their signals would crisscross. Eventually, they would leave Ann Arbor bruised and battered, never looking back.
Last November, Hoke, the Ball State head coach, found himself on the opposite sideline. He had dispatched a true freshman quarterback to face No. 2 Michigan, which entered the game ranked fourth nationally in total defense.
Nate Davis' initiation began in typical fashion.
"The very first play, they ran a corner blitz and he got smacked in his mouth," tight end Darius Hill recalled.
But Davis got rid off the ball to Dante Love for a 13-yard gain and drew a roughing the passer penalty on Michigan's Morgan Trent. Maybe this time, Hoke thought, things would be different.
They nearly were.
After falling behind 31-12 early in the third quarter, Davis engineered a beyond-his-years comeback. He led the Cardinals on touchdown drives of 73 and 64 yards, twice finding receivers for completions longer than 50 yards.
"Everything was clicking," Davis said.
Trailing by eight points, Ball State reached the Michigan 2-yard line with three minutes left, but Davis underthrew Love on fourth and goal. The Cardinals lost the game, but they had found their quarterback of the future.
"The way he played, in front of 110,000, how he really got us back in the game, our whole team fed off of that," Hoke said. "His ability to make some plays in there and handle the noise and the pressure, all those things, he just did a tremendous job."
Davis led Ball State to wins in the final two games, giving the team its first winning record in Mid-American Conference play (5-3) since 2001. (The Cardinals finished 5-7 overall.) Starting only seven games, Davis tied Ball State's single-season record for touchdowns (18) and finished fourth in passing yards (1,975) and eighth in completions (150).
The scariest thing about those numbers, at least for future Ball State opponents, is how Davis collected them.
"Last year, I really wasn't knowing what I was doing," said Davis, who recently was named to the Manning Award watch list. "It's a whole different game now."
Hill was instantly sold on Davis' ability. The star tight end remembers marveling at a 46-yard touchdown pass Davis threw to Louis Johnson in the 2006 season opener.
The kid could sling it, but could he relay signals or even handle the snap?
"You could tell by how he would call the plays that he was a little nervous," said Hill, a Mackey Award candidate who led Ball State in receiving yards (741) and touchdowns (10) last year. "Maybe a little stutter every now and then. We'd break the huddle and not everybody would be able to understand what he said.
"He'd have to go over the play again."
Davis has since beaten his nerves to become Kid Cool in the huddle.
"I like to get everybody riled up and everything," he said. "Everybody thinks you're real serious. You've just got to have a little fun."
Preseason practice was anything but fun for Davis last year. After operating exclusively from the shotgun at Bellaire (Ohio) High School, Davis had to adjust to taking the snap from under center.
Fumbles soon became a problem.
"I was like, maybe it's not right for me to play yet," Davis said.
Hoke had other ideas. Despite the presence of fifth-year senior quarterback Joey Lynch, who had thrown 18 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in 2005, Hoke never considered redshirting Davis.
"We were going to play him unless he just couldn't get it at all, couldn't pick it up and do the things mechanically the way we wanted," Hoke said.
The accelerated plan made sense for the MAC's top recruit.
Davis had drawn interest from several BCS schools, including Cincinnati and Indiana, and was ranked by ESPN Scouts Inc. as the nation's 29th-best quarterback. He passed for 2,932 yards and 42 touchdowns as a high school senior and also set the school scoring record in basketball.
Though most colleges pursued Davis for football, he entered his senior year undecided about which sport to play.
"It was hard," he said. "I knew I had a future in football."
Davis certainly had the pedigree.
His older brother Jose starred at Kent State in the late 1990s and still holds every major passing record at the school, including career yards (6,722), career touchdowns (57) and total offense (7,331 yards). Jose's single-game passing total of 551 yards against Central Florida in 1997 still represents the best mark in MAC history.
The older Davis moved on to the Arena Football League, where he currently plays for the Kansas City Brigade. Jose and Nate talk daily, and Jose keeps tabs on little brother's progress by frequently calling Ball State offensive coordinator Stan Parrish.
"Jose's done a great job," Hoke said. "Being a guy who's been through it a little bit, being a sounding board for Nate, it's been a good situation."
Jose's unconditional support was expected. Joey Lynch's was not.
But even after Davis replaced Lynch as Ball State's starting quarterback in Week 5, Lynch continued to mentor the freshman. Lynch had a legitimate beef at being benched. Although the team was 1-3, he had six touchdown passes, only two interceptions and a completion percentage of 60.4, but he didn't hesitate to back Davis.
"He was never going to be like, 'I took his job' and be all mad and not talk to me and not teach me things," Davis said. "Joey just wasn't about himself. He's like another brother to me."
Fully aware of Davis' reputation coming out of high school, Lynch expected to be pushed for the top job. And when the switch was made, Lynch, a team captain, knew what his responsibility demanded.
It helped that Davis was a willing student.
"When there was something he didn't know or maybe he had a question that he didn't want to ask coach Parrish, he would always come to me," said Lynch, now the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Saint Josephs (Ind.) College. "What made it easy was what a great guy he was, how much he respected me and vice versa.
"Even when he struggled early, he kept with it and never doubted himself. You could see him get better and better each day."
Lynch, the son of Indiana coach Bill Lynch, saw Davis reach a milestone at Michigan.
"I don't care what age you are, you can't get on a much bigger stage than the Big House and be in the game in the fourth quarter," said Lynch, who helped coach Davis this spring as a Ball State graduate assistant. "To do what he did as a freshman is just a tribute to his poise and his confidence.
"That just showed everyone what to expect in the future."
Ball State's immediate future includes three games against BCS teams, including a Sept. 22 trip to Nebraska. Despite being picked fourth in the MAC West, the Cardinals hope to parlay last year's finish into a full-blown renaissance this fall.
They have full faith in the man leading the way.
"In the huddle, players look to him more," Hoke said of Davis. "It's not that young freshman out there playing. It's a guy who knows how to handle it."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.
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