VANCOUVER — Terrell Davis admits that it was a conversation he didn’t think he’d be having when the UBC Thunderbirds hired Blake Nill, one of the most proven head coaches in all of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, to run their football ship this past winter.
Nill was conducting individual player meetings and when he summoned the former superstar running back from Victoria’s Mt. Douglas Secondary School into his office to talk about his future in blue and gold, Davis received a surprising request from his new boss.
“When I sat down with coach Nill, he ran his idea by me, he asked me if I wanted to switch,” Davis recounted Wednesday afternoon as he and the rest of his teammates began preparation for practice ahead of Saturday’s pivotal Canada West regular-season ending home game against the Manitoba Bisons.
Switch, as in go from offence to defence?
“I had never given it a thought before,” Davis continued. “I had never thought about becoming a linebacker. But I said ‘sure’ and we both agreed that it could be a good fit.”
In hindsight, Nill’s intuition was perfect.
On Saturday, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Davis will run out onto the field at Thunderbird Stadium wearing his familiar No. 24, but in one sense, that’s the only thing familiar as his football career, one which some think will include the CFL, continues its next chapter.
“The reason that we wanted to move Terrell to the defence was that we simply didn’t have enough depth on our roster this season,” explains Nill. “We simply couldn’t leave three or four very good athletes on the sidelines, sharing reps at tailback.”
From Nill’s standpoint, he was making his best educated guess but it was one he made based on the coachability, character and pure athleticism of the student-athlete in question.
Davis had played linebacker in high school at Mt. Douglas, but even he admits he never took it as serious as he did his position on the offence as the team’s go-to running back.
For a program that has since become the gold standard by which all other B.C. high school football programs are judged over the past half-decade plus, Davis was its driving force, putting up a combined 3,847 yards over his varsity career and scoring 48 touchdowns in the process.
He spent two frustrating seasons as a running back at Arizona State trying to climb the depth chart before former UBC head coach Shawn Olson won a huge recruiting battle to bring both he and his younger brother Marcus, to the Point Grey campus for the 2014 season.
With veteran Brandon Deschamps well established as the team’s starting running back, Davis was never able to get into the flow last season. And when a coaching change was made, Nill wasted no time in devising the most efficient way to solve the log-jam in his offensive backfield.
Heading into Saturday’s game, Davis found himself in a three-way tie for the team’s tackling lead at 47 with fellow linebacker Mitch Barnett (North Vancouver-Handsworth) and free safety Taylor Loffler (Kelowna).
And not only has he shown a mean streak on the field, dishing punishing hit after hit, he officially stamped himself a defensive convert last Friday when he made his first collegiate interception along with a team-high 10 tackles in UBC’s 41-36 road win against the Saskatchewan Huskies.
“I would say he has been our defensive leader for the most part,” continued Nill, who as the former longtime head coach of the Calgary Dinos, had tried to recruit Davis both as a high school senior in 2012 and later in 2014 when he had left Arizona State. “Things haven’t gone by without some hiccups,” added Nill. “He is learning to play the position again, but this time with a higher accountability than he might have been used to in the past. But each and every week, you can see it. I think he is one of the top linebackers in the conference.”
Adds Davis, who has two more seasons of eligibility remaining: “The (CFL) is the main goal. I have a lot to learn and I still make mistakes. But I know that I still have a lot of room to grow.”
He is also, for the first time in his football career, playing a full-time role on the other side of the ball from Marcus, the dynamic offensive weapon who, through his rushing, receiving and return-game roles, leads the club with 947 all-purpose yards through seven games.
“Marcus and I have always played the same position (on offence),” laughed the elder Davis. “So it’s been interesting with the both of us running on and off the field at the different times. But my mom really likes it. She really watches defence now, too, and she is learning to read our defensive systems.”
From Nill’s perspective, UBC’s roster has not yet begun to approach the level of depth that the country’s elite programs, like Laval, Montreal and Calgary march out on a season-to-season basis.
And it’s for that reason that he beams with pride when talking about the level of play the core of the team has been able to perform at on its way to winning three straight games and five of its last six following a conference-opening 49-16 loss at Calgary on Sept. 4.
“We’re in a situation this season where we’re operating at about a 60 per cent capacity in our program,” Nill said. “We don’t have the depth, and so the young men who have gutted it out are becoming very well-schooled in what it takes to win. They are going through a school of hard knocks, and through this whole transition, Terrell has never relinquished. In my opinion, he is going to be a professional athlete because he plays the game the right way.”
None of that is news to his high school coach.
“He really helped set the transition for us at Mt. Douglas,” said Mark Townsend. “And he’s been able to make this switch because he is so humble and so hard working. It’s been seamless. And I’m not surprised. If anyone was going to be able to make something like this happen, it was Terrell. He rolls up his sleeves when there’s a challenge and he runs with it.”
Only in this case, it’s come with a bit of a change in direction.
“At first it was a little confusing, moving backwards instead of forward,” Davis laughed.
Sure, there might be some back-pedalling involved these days, but as far as Terrell Davis’ career is concerned, a few steps back have been accompanied by a whole lot more forward.
(Photo: Terrell Davis has made a smooth change from offence to defence with the UBC Thunderbirds - Richard Lam, UBC Athletics)