By Jason Cole, Yahoo Sports
August 2, 2007
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – This is what happens when you open your eyes to the world.
Second-year San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis is lined up in the slot on the right in practice with linebacker/teammate Manny Lawson opposite of him. As the ball is snapped, Davis runs 15 yards downfield, taking glances at the defense as he goes, seeing that Lawson has peeled off him and into the shallow part of the zone coverage.
Davis does a quick turn and catches the ball just as his shoulders get completely square to quarterback Alex Smith. He then quickly turns before two defensive backs and Lawson can close on him, and looks like he has a good chance to break away if this were a live-game situation.
A year ago, none of this might have happened. It's not that Davis didn't possess the raw physical skills to run the route or catch the ball. It's just that someone would run over and knock the pass away, or the defenders would close so quickly that Davis was obviously not going to get away.
"Last year, when I would get throws … I would get open but a guy would be there to swat it down because I wasn't coming back to the ball," said Davis, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft, who was limited to 20 catches as a rookie because of injury and lack of knowledge. He spent the offseason working to pick up tips on the receiving end from wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan.
"I wasn't coming out of my breaks with my eyes up or I wasn't running at the defender with my eyes up," Davis acknowledged. "What happens when you run with your head down, when you come out of that break, you give that (defensive back) a chance to (break) on it. He sees those eyes come, sees that head come up, he's going to break on you.
"But now if you're running with your head up, he doesn't know what you're doing and you got all kinds of time. You got a lot of time and a lot of room to make a play."
This is technical football stuff that fans don't really notice much from the sideline or the easy chair. But the story of Davis learning the subtleties of the game speaks to a bigger, more promising element of his young career.
"He's confident and he believes in himself, but he also listens," said wide receiver Bryan Gilmore. "He doesn't come in thinking that just because he was a high pick that he knows it all and that his teammates can't help him. He wants to get better and he pays attention."
To put it another way, when you open your eyes, the world often looks back in admiration.
Initially, it wasn't that way for Davis. The first impression of him a year ago was that he was a pretty boy. Blessed with a body that recently earned him a spot on the cover of Muscle & Fitness Magazine (the photo was shot in April) and a flair for fashion (his $3,000 suits for road games are the talk of the team), veterans took him for more narcissist than neo-Ozzie Newsome.
On top of that, there was the trash talking and showmanship.
In Davis' first mini-camp, he caught a pass in front of linebacker Jeff Ulbrich and spiked the ball in celebration, an affront to a tough-minded veteran.
"We had it out a little and then we came inside and talked about it some more," said Ulbrich, who otherwise speaks glowingly about Davis. "He understood right away. He still talks a lot, but it's the kind of stuff that gets everybody going. He's not belittling anybody out there, just getting everybody fired up. You need that on your team. Training camp gets long and you get a lot of days where people don't want to be out there. Vern gets the juices flowing."
The respect from defensive players comes mostly from Davis' work ethic as a blocker. At 6-foot-3, 253 pounds, Davis is unusually gifted and, more importantly, willing as a blocker. Earlier this week, Davis tied up linebacker Brandon Moore on three straight one-on-one drills.
"He's amazing at it. Sometimes we just stop and watch him block," Gilmore said.
For Davis, being just as effective blocking as catching is simply a part of the job.
"I can't be happy just doing something if it ain't right. I just try to be the best I can be at everything I do," Davis said. "I'm a crafty person, I want it to be perfect. I watch Antonio Gates and guys like that who just want to run their routes and get it done on that side of it. But you have to do it on both sides."
"Some guys aren't real passionate about it. They were just born with the ability and this is what they do," Nolan said. "Guys like Ray and Ed, they get excited about it. They love it. They would call me at 10:30 on Tuesday night after watching film and say, 'Coach, we gotta do this.' They get all excited. You want guys who are pumped about it."
As much as the inspiring trash talk and blocking effort impress, Davis is here to be a receiver first. Blessed with 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash and stunning quickness, he could be a breakaway threat in the middle of the field. He showed some of that in a pair of late-season games last season after he returned to relative health.
Now, he's adding the little things that help Smith.
"He's reading everything much quicker," Smith said. "He recognizes the coverages right away and finds those spots in the zone or knows how to get away from his man right away."
All of that will play into Davis' favorite part of the game.
"You know me. I like to get the ball in my hands," Davis admitted. "I like to get it and run with it because I have that ability to run and make people miss and, at the same time, run over them. That's what a lot of tight ends can't do. They can't run up field and make people miss. That's what I take pride in also, my ability to run after the catch," he said.
And how good does he envision himself?
"Ain't no telling," he said. "I can be as good as I let myself be … I liked Shannon Sharpe a lot growing up."
Can he be as good as Sharpe, the all-time leading receiver among tight ends?
"Oh yeah, most definitely," Davis said. "What he did and better. Just got to keep working on it and getting better."
Updated on Thursday, Aug 2, 2007 3:37 pm, EDT