Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Clayton reveals learning curve; Davis shines

BLACKSBURG -- They sat beside each other in the postgame interview room, the victor and the runner-up. One wore white; the other Maroon. Ju-Ju Clayton and Marcus Davis opposed each other in Saturday's Virginia Tech spring football game, just as they had during practice as they fought for the all-important No. 2 quarterback job.

Coach Frank Beamer named Clayton the winner Monday after an outstanding spring. But on Saturday, in front of a record crowd estimated at 41,000, the redshirt freshman showed just how far he has to go to be a viable backup to Tyrod Taylor this fall.

As you might expect, Clayton looked tentative. He looked raw. When it was over, he'd completed just 4 of 15 passes for 103 yards -- 56 of which came on a short screen that dynamic running back Ryan Williams turned into a touchdown. Clayton repeatedly threw into coverage, fired an interception, got sacked once and lost a fumble.

It was just one scrimmage, no reason to panic after he'd shined so brightly throughout the spring. But for his first test in the spotlight, it was a disappointment.

"Ju-Ju just needs time," Beamer said.

"I think you've got to take care of the football. Don't give it to them, and don't throw if you don't like it. But he'll do that. I have great confidence in Ju-Ju. He'll learn from what happened out there today.

"It was the first time for him with some people in the stands, and I guess that's the largest crowd that he's ever played in front of. But he's solid. He'll work at it, and he'll be better."

Contrast Clayton's day with that of Davis. After the QB announcement was made Monday, Davis began taking snaps at wide receiver, the position where he'd begun his career at Tech. And on Saturday, the big, physical speedster showed just how much of a weapon he could be on the outside this fall.

He caught three passes for 48 yards, the third-highest receiving total in the spring game behind Williams (66 yards) and Dyrell Roberts (65).

"At first, I was real nervous playing in front of that many people," Davis said. "But after my first catch, it was just like going in practice."

Spring games don't tell you the whole story, of course, but they do tell you something. And what this one told us is that even though Davis lost the QB competition, he ultimately might be the winner in all this.

Tech's receiving corps still has plenty of room for improvement, and he has a chance to step in and play right away. At 6-foot-4 and a cut 235 pounds, the redshirt freshman can match up physically with the best the ACC has to offer.

Meanwhile, what the game told Clayton is that he cannot relax just because he's won the backup job. He emerged with a long to-do list for the summer and fall.

"Making reads quicker with the defensive backs," Clayton said, when asked where he'd most like to improve. "Knowing exactly where to go with the ball. In certain situations, if I get a backside blitz, just know where my outlet throw's at. Other than that, work on stepping into my throws and getting touch on it when I need to, things like that."

Backup quarterbacks are crucial to any team, but particularly one that boasts a mobile starter who gets hit a lot. Davis will continue to get work at the position as the Hokies try to increase his arm strength, but Clayton is the guy for now.

Davis will attack his own set of tasks at wideout.

"I'm just going to try to focus on one position so I can master it," he said. "Out there today, I was slow at some things because I wasn't sure if I was going to do it right or I wasn't sure of my route. On some plays you could see me slow down just thinking about what I'm going to do."

Presumably, Clayton and Davis will both speed up as they mature. They are no longer adversaries -- they plan to room together this summer in Blacksburg as they take summer classes and work on their games.

They're still connected but taking diverging paths, two vital pieces in Tech's immediate future.

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