Not a Chance Davidson Takes a Bad One

  • October 31, 2019

BY JAY GREENBERG

Back in Princeton’s 1-9 days, when powerful Harvard had a new, senior quarterback most seasons, such was the model admired by Bob Surace ’90: Get his program to the point where nobody would have to man the most critical position on the field without being completely prepared.

For lack of alternatives, as much as their raw abilities, Quinn Epperly ’15 and Connor Michelsen ’15 were the Princeton quarterbacks by the end of their freshman season. Then came the highly-recruited Chad Kanoff ’18, the somehow not highly-recruited John Lovett ’19, talents not to be held back, obviously, as Surace won a title in Year Four, plus two more while Kevin Davidson was becoming the first truly slow cooked QB of this Princeton era.

When big time talent is ready, there is no reason to keep it off the field. That said, Kanoff suffered a two-interception, four sack, loss to underdog Brown in 2015, plus a three-pick defeat at Lehigh early during the 2016 championship season – days indicative of growing pains.

Lovett was a multiple-position whiz who quarterbacked mostly on the goal line until his medical redshirt year, by which time he had become a terrific passer and decision maker. Neither of those Bushnell Cup winners was as efficient from his first year of QB1 responsibility as has been Davidson, a senior who leads the 6-0 Tigers to Cornell Friday night as the second-ranked team in the FCS in scoring offense.

His startling individual numbers – 70 percent completions, 185.9 efficiency rating, 18 touchdown passes – tell an impressive story, and three wins of Princeton’s six where it took awhile to get going explain even more about how near-perfectly Davidson has managed to make a relatively inexperienced offense so potent.

“From watching the film, you could have told me he is a fourth-year starter,” said Brian Flinn, the first-year receivers coach. “The way the ball comes out, the accuracy, has been unbelievable.”

With a second consecutive undefeated showdown with Dartmouth still one precious victory away, there are cautionary tales – 2006 and 2012– to be told of Schoellkopf Field disasters that followed huge Princeton victories over Harvard. In 2017, Princeton was riding just as high after a rout of the Crimson when the Big Red came from behind to win at Princeton Stadium. But with a 16-game winning streak on the line, it is hugely reassuring that the Tigers have a quarterback who does not let bad turn to worse. Davidson has thrown one interception in six games, not fumbled the ball away once.

“From high school, I’ve always been taught to protect the ball and of course they reinforce that here,” said Davidson.  “Winning games is about taking care of the football.”

“I watch a lot of NFL. The winning quarterback always has the fewest interceptions, that is something I have come to value.”

With pass after pass on the mark on the practice field, and play after play simulating the opposing quarterback of the week for the scout team, Davidson has looked ready for two years. That’s a lot of hours, of course, but still a different definition of learning the hard way. He’s rarely thrown picks during drills either.

Davidson has a stronger arm than Kanoff, who is on the practice squad of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and can match his accuracy. Thicker and stronger throughout his 6-4 build, Davidson is a pro prospect, too. As much as his patience in preparing for this opportunity seems reflected in his veteran decision-making, he has been an overwhelming instant success for more reasons than just having to take a number and wait his turn.

“There are players who have had time to prepare but still haven’t as Kevin has,” said Surace. “He has been a gym rat since getting here.”

“Sitting in the meeting rooms or in the hallway outside them, he has studied film like he was a starter. He is doing what he is doing because of the type of person he is. I don’t want to minimize that part.”

A failed experiment to use Davidson as the goal line quarterback in 2017 ended after a couple of fumbles. But essentially he waited two years and four games to get on the field while a contest still was competitive, which begged for some overthrows, or far worse, underthrows, when he finally got his chance. He was allowed to be a little nervous, you know,

Instead, when Lovett missed the Brown game a year ago, Davidson completed his first pass for 39 yards to Stephen Carlson ’19 to start a 79-yard touchdown drive. A year later he won’t admit to a single butterfly, if only because he didn’t suffer any.

Never are Princeton recruits promised playing time, only the opportunity to compete for it.  Still, the sophistication of the attack here and the competition for spots is an often-rude awakening for freshmen.

“It was a reality I had to learn,” said Davidson. “I thought I could play on the side of Lovett, using my skills, but obviously he was unbelievable so I realized it was going to be a long road until I play.”

“But I also believed I would have my chance at some point and had to prepare for maximizing it. When I found out on the Wednesday before the Brown game I was going to play, I didn’t have to change my routine.  It kind of flowed right into the game. I trust in my skills, knew I could play at this level so I wasn’t really nervous.”

This is the way things are supposed to work. And do in the best programs.

“There is no crystal ball,” said Surace. “When you recruit good players, you have to develop them.”

“You want guys to understand that it you are not ready for the opportunity you might not get another one.”

In his first start as QB1, against Butler, Davidson went 18-for-21 and two touchdowns as the 2019 Tigers picked up where Lovett and the 2018 team left off. A Princeton record seven touchdown passes at Bucknell, achieved in just three quarters, were a statement, but understated stats in two games where the yards have been harder to manufacture are an even greater declaration of what Davidson is doing: Giving nothing away.

There are plenty of strong arms eligible for every NFL draft. Teams are looking for an accompanying strong constitution. There also is no escaping the reality that escapability in the eyes of personnel evaluators is huge. The play Davidson made with Dylan Classi for what proved to be the winning points against Harvard last weekend was exhibit A.

“He had to escape the pocket, kind of finagle his way over a guy on the ground and did it laterally, which isn’t easy to do,” said Surace. “Then Kevin had to set his feet before getting clobbered (drawing a roughing the passer penalty).”

“I didn’t see the guy hit him, didn’t realize until watching it again just how great a throw he made under pressure. The really good quarterbacks can feel a rusher who might be getting tight to them so they slide over a little to complete the throw.  Kevin has the gift of a really strong arm, so he doesn’t have to be perfectly set to throw the ball.”

“He has worked hard. But he also came here trained in that way.”

That is a story in itself. After his transfer from San Ramon Valley High School to one in Oakland that was ruled by California prep authorities to be outside the lines of residency requirements, Davidson’s recruitment was truncated by an October-to-October suspension of his football eligibility.

That pretty well ended Stanford’s interest. But he had offers from the University of California-Davis and Missouri – a coach there once based in the Bay Area, had worked with Davidson – when he was invited by Surace and offensive coordinator James Perry to one of Princeton’s summer camps.

“Until my chance for Stanford was gone, I had not thought about the Ivies,” recalls Davidson. “My Dad told me Princeton could be a tremendous opportunity and we needed to check it out.”

The Davidsons combined the trip to Princeton with sightseeing in New York City and visits to camps at Harvard and Yale, where he pretty much felt ignored. Not so here.

“It was easy to see his big arm on the video,” said Surace. “You can learn a ton more in just one day at a camp.”

“With quarterbacks especially, you have to build a relationship and Kevin was real easy to talk to. This is the type of guy we wanted. We were excited.”

On an official visit in mid-winter Kanoff and Lovett took Davidson under their precious arms. It being Princeton, even before you add three football titles in six years, this was a no-risk choice. And no risk is the way Davidson likes things.

That dart he threw while on the move to Andrew Griffin in end zone traffic at Bucknell, had a wow factor, but only to untrained eyes did it seem like a big gamble. Davidson, Griffin, and all of the upperclass receivers worked over the summer to reach that level of rapport. Still they are not being put in the position where they have to take the ball from a defender.

“There should be no risk,” said Surace. “Now, obviously there are hail marys and certain situations that are different, but in the normal course of the game the worst scenario should be an incompletion.

“From where Kevin put it at Bucknell in relation to the defender, that was either going to be a touchdown catch or you move on to the next play.”

Practice hasn’t completed perfection. Last week, with everybody covered, Davidson took a 3rd down sack that he should not have, almost taking Tavish Rice out of his comfort zone. The kicker nailed a 46-yarder regardless so all was well that ended well, although it didn’t look like it was going to for the longest time. Their running game shut down, the Tigers went seven straight possessions without scoring, but never gave the ball away through all that travail. Eventually three Harvard turnovers to none by Princeton won the game.

“My biggest philosophy is giving my receiver, and nobody else, a chance,” said Davidson.  “So when I miss, I usually miss long, that’s been pretty consistent through these six games.”

“That’s just part of protecting the ball, an instinct I always have had.  When I throw, I want it to be my guy or nobody.”

TIGER TAILS

  • Kickoff at Cornell is at 6 on ESPNU.  Radio is WPRB (103.3).
  • Princeton leads the series with Cornell 62-37-2.
  • Due to the chain of events set off by Dartmouth and Penn exchanging slots on the Princeton schedule, this is the Tigers’ first visit to Schoellkopf in three years.
  • In 2016, Lovett, ran, passed and caught a total of seven touchdowns in a 56-7 Princeton win.
  • The Tigers have moved up to 12th in both the FCS Coaches and STATS (media and SIDs) polls.

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