Life in transition
All-America DE Bruce Davis switching to LB for NFL
The sun has yet to rise above Agoura Hills, a quiet suburb 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, but Bruce Davis is already sitting in the middle of a local deli, learning how to play linebacker the only way you can at this hour.
With coffee creamers and fruit jam packages spread across the table, like Xs and Os on a chalkboard, Davis is learning the basics of a position he rarely played in college but must now adapt to as if he's played it his entire career.
"It's definitely a challenge, but I love a challenge," said Davis, who recorded 24.5 sacks over the past two seasons at UCLA as defensive end and was named an All-American defensive last season. "I love the game. Nobody can try and take this game away from me. They're trying to, but I'm going to let them know they can't."
At 6-foot-3, 241 pounds, Davis' lack of size has forced him to move to outside linebacker from his more natural defensive end position that made him a premier college pass rusher. While Davis braces himself for the uncertainty of playing a new position, Gary Wichard, Davis' agent, confidently watches longtime college and NFL defensive coordinator Foge Fazio mentor Davis over breakfast as he sips his coffee in between glances at the morning newspaper.
This is nothing new for Wichard, who watched his client Adam Archuletta go from an undersized college linebacker to the first defensive back taken in the 2001 NFL draft. Davis, however, is more of a cross between Dwight Freeney and Jason Taylor, two other Wichard clients that went from tweeners to Pro Bowlers.
"The NFL is about imitation not innovation," said Wichard. "If you can say he's a blank-blank type, you're in good shape. Bruce is the next Jason Taylor. When I first saw Jason he wasn't even a power forward, he was a small forward at 229 pounds. Jason broke the door down for guys like Bruce Davis and Dwight Freeney, the undersized guys that can get to the quarterback."
Wichard doesn't shy away from imitation. If anything he flaunts it, using many of his clients in the league such as Taylor and Freeney as examples of what his current crop of rookies -- Davis, Miami defensive end Calais Campbell and North Carolina defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer -- could become if they follow his "game plan."
The game plan is an actual playbook-sized collection of tips, analysis and anecdotes that Wichard has collected over his 20-plus years as an agent, personalized for each client. The first page of the game plan is a four-tiered schedule that takes the player from his final season to his eventual NFL contract. Davis is currently in the midst of the third phase after participating in last week's NFL Combine and preparing for his Pro Day next Thursday at UCLA.
"It all starts here," says Wichard, pointing at a fog-covered football field at nearby Agoura High, where his players are currently training. "That's all I know. After that it's just money. You're going to get a lot more money if you're picked here [hand above head] than if you were picked here [hand below waist]; its simple arithmetic."
Davis is one of the biggest mysteries in next month's NFL draft, and certainly amongst Wichard's three client's in the draft (both Campbell and Balmer are projected to go in the first round, while Davis could go anywhere from the first to the third round). Wichard, it seems, revels in such ambiguity and loves showing off old mock drafts that have none of his clients being taken in the first round and comparing them with the actual selections and seeing all of his guys in there.
As Davis practices against Fazio, alternating between coming off the edge and dropping back into coverage, Wichard gets a call from an NFL general manager and wastes little time hyping up his incoming class.
"You have to see Davis in person," he says. "He's a Jason Taylor-clone."
Again, imitation not innovation.
"I actually think Bruce is going to be a unique player," says Fazio, who most recently was a defensive consultant for the Vikings in 2005. "He's going to be able to put his hand on the ground and also stand up; maybe be a 3-4 linebacker like the Steelers play or be a specialist on third downs when he comes out and rushes the passer, but he has some special skills."
After going through football drills with Fazio and other professional coaches for a couple of hours alongside Balmer and Campbell, Davis gets a moment to relax a bit when the group drives to a nearby restaurant for lunch, although Davis' training technically never ends.
"The hardest adjustment for me is eating," says Davis, who has gained 10 pounds of muscle since the end of last season. "Before I started training I never thought twice about what I ate. I figured I could eat whatever I wanted, but it's not like that at all. I need to gain weight, so I've stepped up my carb intake so much that I have to eat five times a day with snacks in between."
Davis began his daily training regimen for the draft soon after his college football career ended at the Las Vegas Bowl, when he memorably let his emotions go and cried as he walked off the field after UCLA lost to BYU on a missed, chip-shot field goal.
"People always tell me to calm down or tell me I get too emotional. No, no, no. This game is my life," says Davis, whose father Bruce Sr. also went to UCLA and won two Super Bowl rings as an offensive lineman for the Raiders. "As far as I'm concerned I owe this game everything I have, so every time I go out there on the field I let it go. There's no let up, there's none of that. It's just not in my wiring. When I was little kid, I asked my dad if I could miss practice to go to mall one time and I got smacked in the face. There is no room for complacency with me. I'll never take a day off. The day I play my last snap of NFL football is the day I'll finally kick my feet up. "
As Davis talks about football, an NFL highlight package pops up on the television near the restaurant's bar and the immediacy of it all -- Pro Day, the NFL draft and his first NFL season -- finally begins to hit Davis.
"It's overwhelming to think about this sometimes, but at the same time this is what I wanted my whole life," he says as he looks at the television. "If the opportunity presents itself and I catch Peyton Manning with his arm still in the air ready to cock back and throw, I'm going to unload on him. Same goes for Tom Brady and all those guys. They're going to be out there trying to torch whatever team I'm playing on, so if I catch 'em, I'm going to hit 'em. I'm going to hit them as hard as I can and let them know that I'm there."
Just as he finishes his sentence, a highlight of Taylor sacking Manning flashes on the screen, and there is Wichard smiling in the distance.