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It takes a while, but Davis catches on

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

USC tight end, who has overcome setbacks, helps the offense open up the passing game.

September 26, 2007|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

The bandage on Fred Davis' left earlobe is neither a fashion statement nor a byproduct of heavy cellphone use that followed the USC tight end's coming-out game against Washington State.

The beige gauze has been there almost daily since training camp, an ever-present reminder to remove earrings before donning a football helmet.

"I got hit and it got ripped a little," Davis said Tuesday of his near-Holyfieldesque condition. "Then I took off my helmet and it got worse.

"I'm supposed to get stitches, but I don't know when. Hopefully soon."

Davis is feeling no pain, or lacking for attention, after emerging as quarterback John David Booty's go-to receiver.

At least for one game.

Davis, a senior from Toledo, Ohio, had never caught more than six passes or gained more than 68 receiving yards in a game until Booty last Saturday turned to him repeatedly. Davis caught nine passes to help the top-ranked Trojans to a 47-14 victory in their Pacific 10 Conference opener. His 124 receiving yards were the most ever by a USC tight end.

"He didn't do anything different from what he normally does," Coach Pete Carroll said. "He just got the ball a lot."

Family and friends have called and text-messaged Davis ever since. Former Trojans receiver Dwayne Jarrett was among the well-wishers.

"It's a big deal, but then you think of it, it's a one-day thing," Davis said. "You can't stay on it that long."

USC travels to Seattle this weekend to play Washington.

After Davis' performance, opponents must now prepare for a USC passing game that figures to expand each week.

The Trojans' aerial attack sputtered at times against Idaho and was plagued by drops against Nebraska. But against Washington State, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian let Booty get into rhythm and gain confidence by calling for short throws to multiple receivers. Davis caught two touchdown passes and stretched the field a bit with three gains for more than 18 yards.

"With the athletes we have on the outside, if you can get one on the inside too, it just makes us all that much harder to stop," Booty said.

Against Washington State, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Davis almost felt like a wide receiver, the position he hoped to play when he arrived at USC in the spring of 2004.

Davis graduated a semester early from high school so he could get a head start by participating in spring workouts. He showed decent speed and athleticism but lacked the route-running skills and ball-catching ability of other receivers.

During training camp, Davis sought counsel from former offensive coordinator Norm Chow.

"You could tell he had talent, but it didn't really fit at wide receiver because he was getting so big," said Chow, now the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. "But he was the perfect size for a tight end."

Davis played in nine games and caught four passes during the regular season before experiencing the turning point in his career.

As the unbeaten Trojans boarded the bus that would take them from campus to the airport for their trip to the Bowl Championship Series title game in Miami, Carroll told Davis he was staying home.

Davis was disappointed but not surprised. He had been tardy returning from visits to Ohio several times, including after the break during bowl preparation. So he collected his bags and walked back to his apartment.

"It started raining right after he told me," Davis said. "I was like, 'This must be the worst day of my life.' "

Davis' mother, Margo, said the family was "devastated" but added, "at the same time it was good for Frederick. A wake-up call."

Though it cost him a chance to celebrate with teammates after their 55-19 demolition of Oklahoma, Davis said, "It definitely gave me time to think about stuff.

"Sitting there and watching them from home and seeing what they were doing and not being a part of it, that really does make you think."

Davis returned to spring practice intent on increasing his role and demonstrating responsibility. He caught 13 passes in 13 games in 2005. Last season, Davis started 10 games and caught 38 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns.

He caught five passes in the first two games this season, before bursting onto the national scene with his performance against Washington State. Davis' athleticism was on full display as he stiff-armed several defenders and hurdled another.

Carroll takes particular satisfaction in Davis' growing maturity.

"I thought he might not be able to get everything in order . . . it took him a while," Carroll said. "But once he did, we saw he had grown up."

Like the torn earlobe, remaining Booty's primary target apparently is not a pressing concern for Davis. Not with a possible national title game run and a probable NFL career ahead.

"You can't do anything but grow, definitely, in this program," he said. "Coach Carroll, he just does a good job of showing where you can help your future, even more than football, off the field."

--

gary.klein@latimes.com

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