Upon arriving in Mobile, Ala. in January, I asked Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage if he believed any quarterbacks were poised to break out during the week.
“Davis Webb,” Savage, the former Cleveland Browns GM, said without hesitation.
I had heard moderate buzz about the Cal quarterback throughout the fall but never considered him a top-tier prospect. He couldn’t beat out Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech, so he transferred to Berkeley. He followed Jared Goff in Cal’s Bear Raid offense, meaning the same steep learning curve (learning to command a huddle, taking snaps from under center) that kept the Rams rookie off the field until late November will likely apply to Webb, too. But back in January, Savage was sensing momentum, and now it’s tangible. Six weeks before the draft, Webb is a legitimate second-round candidate and it’s feasible that, come the last weekend in April, he will be billed as someone’s quarterback of the future.
Article continues below ...
In January, Webb flew into Mobile two days earlier than his Senior Bowl peers to adjust his body clock, and arranged a throwing session with local University of South Alabama receivers. The more you learn about the 22-year-old, stories like this become common. He’s the son of a coach and, after his playing career, wants to be a coach himself. When he watches football on TV, he splays out 50 index cards in front of him, scribbling down plays he likes. He has already authored the framework for his eventual coaching playbook—down to situational red zone plays—in a binder he keeps at home. He had keys to the high school gym, and yes, janitors found Webb running cone drills past 9 p.m. more than once. He packed up his car the day after Texas Tech graduation and drove the 20 hours to Berkley with his mom so he could get started as soon as possible. He out-clocked a few coaches in the Cal football building, self-imposing a 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. workday. He rehearses play-calls in the mirror. He stayed up an extra two to three hours at Senior Bowl practices to study the exhibition game playbook.
Says Jake Spavital, Webb’s offensive coordinator at Cal: “Sometimes you hear all of this and say, Alright, you’re probably full of s—. Sure, he’s always up at the offices, and always working and all of that. But when you do the research, and a lot of NFL teams are, you start seeing it. And you say: Damn, this kid is the real deal.”
* * *
Webb completed his goal at the combine: He wanted to finish Top 5 in every category. He had a terrific throwing session, highlighting his arm strength on vertical routes, while shrinking the gap between himself and the presumed top four (DeShone Kizer, Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Mitchell Trubisky). “But the interviews were my best part,” Webb said in a phone interview last week.
This was the second time Webb met with many teams—the first being the Senior Bowl—and Webb’s football obsession and ultra-confident personality resonated. Webb is so personable, it can be mistaken as inauthentic. One scout was surprised that one month after chatting with the quarterback in Mobile, Webb addressed him by name in Indianapolis. But these traits trace back to Webb’s upbringing.
Webb’s father, Matt, coached high school football in Suburban Dallas. He switched schools five times—according to Davis, always accepting better job offers—and so Webb cheered for five different schools, himself switching schools once. “I’ve kind of become used to making new friends,” he says. He attended a Texas Tech camp his sophomore year, and fell in love with the program. On the drive home, Webb pledged to his father that he would make Lubbock his home. When Tech offered a scholarship, Webb told his other suitors (among them: Iowa, TCU) to back off. He committed the same day.
By the second day of spring ball, Webb was practicing in the first-team huddle. He switched off with incumbent Michael Brewer, fully supplanting him as starter by the bowl game. (Brewer would transfer to Virginia Tech; Webb’s emergence also pushed Baker Mayfield out to Oklahoma). Webb, as a freshman, won the Holiday Bowl MVP, leading the Red Raiders to a 37-23 upset over No. 16 Arizona State, completing 28 of 40 passes (to 10 different targets) for 403 yards and four scores.
A dark horse Heisman candidate, Webb started the first eight games of 2014 before a season-ending ankle injury in October. A few weeks later, he underwent surgery on his shoulder from an injury in September. As Webb sat out, coach Kliff Kingsbury inserted a true freshman, Patrick Mahomes. Webb’s trajectory was suddenly thrown out of whack.
In 2015, Mahomes won the starting job in camp. “I feel like I never really got the chance to compete,” Webb says. Factoring into Kingsbury’s decision: Mahomes had two years of eligibility on Webb.
It was a harsh shift. “I was a team captain, I was the guy for the first couple years,” Webb says. “And then all of the sudden I was just the backup. It wasn’t easy. I think it would be easy to bow my head and feel sorry for myself, but I knew as a captain I had to be a great teammate.”
Webb stayed in the top pack of conditioning drills. He lifted like a linebacker. He made himself available to freshman (Need help with a move? Want to go over plays?). He was now leading the No. 2 huddle and took pride in working with the younger players. “And the next year, it was so fun watching [wideouts] Keke Coutee and Jonathan Giles have a great year with Patrick [Mahomes],” Webb says. “Because I felt like I had a hand in their development.”
By December, the worst-kept secret in Lubbock became official: Webb would transfer.
* * *
Webb chose Cal over Colorado, with Spavital’s arrival as offensive coordinator being one of the biggest factors. A quick primer for those who don’t follow college football:
In 2008, Kevin Sumlin became head coach at Houston and, with offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, helped Case Keenum become one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history. Kingsbury was a quality control coach who worked closely with Keenum. In 2009, Spavital was hired as a grad assistant. Sumlin and Kingsbury brought their offense to Texas A&M in 2012. Spavital moved briefly to West Virginia with Holgorsen (helping groom Geno Smith), then joined the Aggies in 2013 for the prime of Johnny Manziel.
“I’m really close with Kliff, and we’ve always traded tape,” Spavital says. “Every single week, we trade tape. He critiques me, I critique him. Throughout the year when Davis was the starter, I was like, This guy is really good. Kliff spoke so highly of him. He said he has one of the better arms you’ll ever see. Though Kliff went with Pat Mahomes, it was kind of like just giving it to the hot hand. He never thought anything less of Davis.”
And so when Spavital took the Cal job, Webb followed. It was a perfect match. Spavital was going to install his offense (which, according to Spavital, is essentially the same as Kingsbury’s with a few variations) and had an incoming quarterback with a base knowledge. The transition from the farmlands of Lubbock to one of the most liberal campuses in the U.S. was jarring. Knowing his grad transfer was essentially a six-month audition for NFL scouts, Webb accelerated the process. He wanted to know every player on the team, their hometown, their hobbies. “I didn’t want to look at it like memorization or trying to suck up,” Web said. “I just tried to be as human as possible.” If he sat with a group of five offensive linemen for breakfast, he’d join wide receivers for lunch. He even got to know defensive players. Within two months of being on campus, Webb was named a captain (a badge he proudly reminds NFL interviewers).
“For six months, we pretty much lived together,” Spavital says. “He was in the office so much, he forced me to get in there too. If he liked a certain concept, even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, I still put it in because the kid did his homework.” Webb and Spavital did a few studies on footwork. They broke down just about every NFL quarterback’s tape. Webb’s mechanics were already pretty sound—he’s been tutored by George Whitfield in offseason, and is a veteran of Elite 11 camps—and his arm talent is undeniable. Webb has a quick release, where sometimes it feels like he’s just flicking the ball. Though Spavital’s offense is different than the one Goff ran a year earlier, it has enough similarities that evaluators talking themselves into Webb have pointed to this:
Webb’s final season at Cal: 61.6% completions, 4,295 yards, 37 touchdowns, 12 interceptions.
Goff’s final season at Cal: 64.5% completions, 4,714 yards, 43 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
“I’ve known Jared for a long time, because of Elite 11 camps, and I think comparisons are O.K., but we are different leaders, different quarterbacks,” Webb says. “Jared is a little more laid back. I can be laid back, but I’m pretty high strung.”
“Oh, Davis is a competitor, he’s a very emotional player,” Spavital says. “He’d get so intense with stuff, and I’d say, Relax relax, relax. Two weeks later, if I was losing my mind, he’d come up to me and say, Relax, relax, relax. That’s the type of relationship we had.”
Their bond was so strong, Spavital treated Webb like a grad assistant. “He was the only player I’ve ever allowed to run my meetings on Friday,” Spavital says. “I’m used to splitting my meetings in half. I let him have one, and let him run it. He made cutups throughout the week of things he wanted to show the skill players. I met with the entire unit at night.”
Spavital is now back at West Virginia with Holgorsen. “Davis will end up being my fifth quarterback to enter the NFL,” Spavital says (the others: Keenum, Manziel, Smith and Brandon Weeden). “Everyone has their own path, but the kids who put their whole life into the game, you root for those kids.”