They say the most popular player on every NFL team is the second-string quarterback. Or the third-stringer.
Nate Davis has yet to play in an NFL regular-season game, and his performance during offseason practices and mini-camps was spotty. But Davis remains an intriguing figure to a lot of 49ers fans who remember the strong arm and daring instincts he displayed at Ball State. And let’s face it, the jury is still deliberating on starter Alex Smith.
Davis completed 5 of 6 passes for 84 yards at Indianapolis last Sunday after entering the game in the fourth quarter. Afterward, he admitted that he might be a better game quarterback than a practice quarterback.
“I believe so. Yes, I do,” Davis said in the visitors’ locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium. “I just got to keep working to be one of those great practice players also.”
Coach Mike Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye would like that. They would also like to be able to evaluate Davis against better defensive players. To that end, both said this week that the second-year QB may get an earlier look in upcoming games. Maybe even this Sunday’s game against the Vikings at Candlestick Park.
“In a game, the situation we put him in, he’s done pretty well,” Singletary said. “But we want to put him in the game in a situation where he’s playing against a little better competition earlier in the game and see how he fares that way. But the protection part of it, just learning where the fire is coming from, that’s the point that he has to get to. He has to be able to do that on the move.”
“In terms of earlier play in the second and third exhibition games, we will experiment with some of that,” Raye offered.
Whether that means Davis will leapfrog backup David Carr in the rotation, or whether Smith and Carr will simply get fewer snaps, remains to be seen. Don’t look to Davis for answers, because he hasn’t been told much.
“No, they have not talked to me,” he said Thursday. “The biggest thing is with me, I just gotta keep on staying in my playbook, just keep on working hard, and whenever they give me a chance I gotta take full advantage of it.”
Davis plays with a great deal of confidence, but he is soft-spoken – almost timid – with reporters. His struggles with dyslexia, and with absorbing the 49ers’ playbook, have been broadcast to the world. But he has quietly been making plays lately at practice. And just as Singletary and Raye have suggested, he has gotten more meaningful reps of late.
Thursday morning, Davis worked with the second team during two separate occasions in 11-on-11. It wasn’t perfectly smooth, but he threw a touchdown pass to Dominique Zeigler, and showed some leadership when he adamantly told the offense to re-huddle after consecutive false starts.
“Especially our core plays, it feels like the game has slowed down for me,” Davis said. “Last year was just a big rush. But this year, the game has slowed down for me, because I know what I’m doing. … I can take my time, go through my progression and everything like that.”
There has been a quantitative gain, too, as Davis has learned more of Raye’s playbook.
“Oh, yes, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “All of our core plays – I would say three-fourths of our plays, I have a great feel of.”
If he expects to start one day, Davis will need to know 100 percent of his team’s plays, backward and forward. But this is certainly progress over last season, when he struggled to grasp the bulk of the 49ers’ book.
Davis may look a little different to Niners fans when they see him Sunday, and not just because of his greater familiarity with the offensive system. At Indianapolis, Davis played without gloves for the first time in college or the NFL.
“The main thing about the gloves was centers, they sweat a lot,” Davis explained. “So of course sometimes the gloves would get wet, and it’s sometimes hard to hold the ball. So I was just like, you know what? I’m gonna take ’em off. I stayed here after practice, kept on throwing, throwing, so I could get a good feel of it.”
Gloves or bare hands, nobody knows whether Nate Davis has what it takes to be a starting NFL quarterback. But we could take a step toward figuring that out Sunday.