TAMPA – Willie Taggart noticed the change a few weeks ago, before the University of South Florida offense took a turn for the better, even before the emergence of true freshman quarterback Mike White.
Junior wide receiver Andre Davis — not a compelling factor this season, often frustrated by diminished results — was smiling again. He was joking with teammates, going all-out in practice, focused like never before.
“I have seen a difference,’’ Taggart said. “I’m a big believer in you practice well, you play well. It’s a big reason why Andre has produced.’’
And it’s a big reason why the Bulls (2-6, 2-2 American Athletic Conference) are thinking optimistically for Saturday night’s home game against the Memphis Tigers (2-6, 0-4) at Raymond James Stadium.
Davis had nine receptions for 134 yards in USF’s 35-23 defeat at Houston on Halloween night. And it could’ve been better — an apparent 27-yard White-to-Davis go-ahead touchdown with 4:06 remaining was called back on a disputed offensive pass interference penalty.
After just six receptions for 95 yards in his past three games, Davis recaptured the form that made him an obvious focal point in USF’s passing game. Having a pure passing quarterback who can deliver to a spot, even while under pressure? Yes, that helps, too.
“He throws a pretty ball and he has been throwing a pretty ball since he got here,’’ said Davis, the former Jefferson High standout who has 29 catches for 411 yards this season. “He prepares like he’s the starter all the time. He could’ve been thrown in there a lot earlier. The things he’s doing now are not surprising to me.
“He throws a catchable ball. He puts the ball where it needs to be. It gives me more opportunities to make plays on the ball.’’
Making plays has been Davis’ forte since his days at Jefferson, which went 15-0 and won the Class 3A state title during his senior season in 2010. He was nicknamed “Freak Show’’ for his uncanny body control and ability to make stunning catches.
That has carried over to USF, where he is clearly the No. 1 option at receiver. Davis has a school-record 26 consecutive games with at least one reception. Three more catches and he will become the eighth USF receiver with 100 for a career. He needs 431 yards to surpass Carlton Mitchell’s USF career record of 1,648.
“Andre was a big part of (USF’s plans) this past game and big part of it this entire year, but for whatever reason, we didn’t get it going,’’ Taggart said. “Andre is more comfortable with the offense. He’s not hesitant or forgetting things like earlier in the year. He’s playing lights-out, like it’s his last year. It’s amazing how good you can look when you’re prepared and you play with confidence.’’
Davis looks more like the player who set USF single-game records with 12 catches for 191 yards in a 32-31 victory at Nevada last season. He made the game-winning 56-yard reception from B.J. Daniels with 38 seconds remaining.
“Of course, you’d always like to catch 12 passes for 191 yards,’’ Davis said. “I came off the bench that day. It was amazing. It let me know I can accomplish a lot of things and compete with people who are at the top.
“I try not to think about it too much. It was a long time ago now, but it let me know what was possible. I’ve been getting double covered since high school, so that’s nothing new. But there are times when the plays aren’t there. You make them when you can.’’
Other than that, Davis is smiling and joking, giving it his all. If he’s not the playmaker, at least he can become an inspiration for others to follow his lead.
“I need to show confidence,’’ Davis said. “I want to be upbeat. That’s the way I want our whole offense to act. I feel like that’s what we need. We’re starting to show what we can really do.’’