It was during the St. Mary's game, said first-year Southwestern coach Fred Kaiss, that Diarra Davis began to emerge as one of the area's most dangerous offensive players.
"A light bulb went on in his head," Kaiss said. It was Southwestern's third game, and the strong-armed, scrambling quarterback showed that he was made for the Sabers' new run-and-shoot offense.
One play in that game reveals clues about the senior's athleticism, his personality and his ability to mystify opposing defenses. Ironically, Davis didn't even take the snap.
Trailing 13-6 in the second quarter after a St. Mary's score, Southwestern was stopped on the Saints' 40-yard line facing fourth-and-22. Kaiss decided to go for it. Davis came up behind his center, barked out "Hut!," then suddenly turned and went into motion. The snap went directly to tailback Jerome Glover, who spotted Davis racing 30 yards down the sideline. Glover threw; Davis caught the ball in full stride over his shoulder and scored.
"He came off the field with a smile," said Kaiss of the normally undemonstrative Davis. "I think that's the only time I've seen him excited."
Davis' execution of the trick play certainly got the Saints excited. Alton Lawrence, the Southwestern right tackle, said, "They were saying they didn't know he was that fast. They were just surprised. Then they were just worried about him, [saying] 'How can we stop No. 11?' "
That could be the question again tomorrow when the Sabers (3-2 overall, 3-1 in the MSA C Conference) travel to St. Paul's (6-1, 4-1 in the league) for a 3:30 p.m. game.
Though Southwestern eventually lost, 36-28, to unbeaten C Conference rival St. Mary's, no one has stopped Davis since that game, the first of three straight in which he's thrown for more than 300 yards.
Last Friday's 407-yard performance (on 20 of 27 completions with seven touchdowns) resulted in a 59-2 win over Spalding, and Davis was named Evening Sun Athlete of the Week. Kaiss took him out of the game after the first play of the fourth quarter and, of the seven incompletions, Kaiss said, "He only threw one bad pass. Six were just dropped [by receivers]."
"Sometimes," said Davis, "I have a tendency to put a little too much on the ball in football. That comes from baseball." He is, not surprisingly, the Sabers' top pitcher, and a basketball point guard as well.
In just five football games this season he has delivered, often on the run, 72 completions in 110 attempts for 1,298 yards and 17 touchdowns. "He can scramble," Kaiss said. "He can put on a show, and he sees downfield the whole time he's scrambling . . . He's got a good 50- to 60-yard arm. He's got more quickness than foot speed (4.85 seconds for 40 yards), and he's very elusive."
Elusiveness should be a survival tool for the slender, 6-foot, 170-pounder, but Davis likes the hitting of football. "I'm not a physical player, but I like the contact part of the game," he said.
Davis had played Pop Warner ball but only came out for football at Southwestern in 10th grade at the urging of Glover, a close friend. Glover was the quarterback and wanted to switch to running back. Both have flourished in the run-and-shoot; Glover is the leading receiver in a corps that includes Michael Williams, Dana Smith, Lamont Connors and Damon Kimbrough.
Even professional teams have difficulty learning the run-and-shoot offense, but Davis has adapted quickly. "We have a no-huddle offense," said Kaiss, "where the quarterback can call every play from the line. Diarra's picked that up . . . He likes a challenge. When I put in our two-minute offense, he wanted more. In the two-minute drill, he's in his glory, he's on top of the world, there's fire in his eyes. But if we score a touchdown, he just trots off the field."
Lawrence, also the Sabers' defensive captain at his middle linebacker position, practices against Davis and can empathize with defenders. "It's hard," he said, "because you don't know which way he's going to go. It's hard to drop back and read him."
And when the light bulb goes on in Davis' head, he's the one who's doing the reading.