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It's time for . . . OSCAR

Published Oct. 2, 2005

More than a few eyebrows were raised, the hue of Carolina blue a bit too much for the locals to process. Oscar Davenport was leaving the Sunshine State for Tobacco Road, and it wasn't to play basketball.

A college football career awaited at North Carolina, and to the uninitiated, those were strange words. North Carolina? Football?

Even Davenport admits today he was a fan of Florida State growing up, that he idolized its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Charlie Ward, while playing football at Osceola High in St. Petersburg, that he hoped to spend his college days in Tallahassee.

But when decision time arrived, Davenport chose the Tar Heels _ a move he never has regretted.

"When I was being recruited here, the coaches were saying they wanted players who could win a national championship," said Davenport, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound redshirt junior who is the Tar Heels' starting quarterback. "We've had good recruiting classes over the last few years, and it has paid off. Now we're in a great position to succeed.

"It's fun, but some people were like, "You should have gone to Florida State. You'll never beat them.' Now we've got a chance to beat them."

Davenport likely will be a key factor when the fifth-ranked Tar Heels (8-0) play the third-ranked Seminoles (8-0) on Saturday night at Kenan Stadium in a game that likely will decide the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

The game has national championship implications as well, which makes it even more special to Davenport, who has started just four games this season but already is 21st nationally among Division I-A passers.

Davenport set a school record by throwing 155 passes without an interception _ a streak that ended last week against Georgia Tech _ and also holds the school mark for best completion percentage (64.8) for passers with more than 200 attempts.

"I knew deep down inside that when I got a chance, I'd do okay," said Davenport, who has completed 111 of 173 passes for 1,330 yards and seven TDs. "Sometimes people would say things, smart things like, "You don't start. Who are you?' People who did say that stuff don't have much to say now. That feels good."

Davenport's chances have come late, in high school and college. While a sophomore at Osceola, the driver of a car in which he was riding fell asleep and veered off the road. Davenport slammed into the windshield and sustained a concussion. As a precaution, doctors would not allow him to play football for a year.

So when Davenport returned for his junior season, he was behind an older, more experienced quarterback and didn't become the starter until late in the year.

Making it more difficult to showcase his ability was Osceola's offense. Blessed with a strong offensive line but few experienced receivers, coach George Palmer ran the run-oriented Wing-T.

In his senior season, Davenport threw 15 touchdowns and emerged as a solid quarterback. But he did not receive much national attention.

"What didn't show up on film was what a competitor he is, how mature he was," said Palmer, in his eighth year as Osceola's coach. "He didn't get excited easily. He had all the qualities you want.

"He played well when we were behind, played well when we were ahead. He was very coachable. He'd listen. And he never doubted his own ability. You wanted him in charge with the game on the line."

Florida State was interested in Davenport, who met Ward during his recruiting visit. Linebacker Hank Grant, a friend of Davenport's who played at Boca Ciega High, was going to be a Seminole, which would have made a move to Tallahassee even easier. But FSU also was pursuing Peyton Manning, and Thad Busby already was paying his dues on the bench.

"When I went on my visit, (FSU coach) Bobby Bowden pretty much said, "If there is a person ahead of you, you'll have to put in your time,' " Davenport said. "At the time, I had a better chance of coming here and playing sooner."

Or so he thought. Davenport redshirted in 1994, then saw some mop-up action in 1995 while being groomed for the starting position a year later.

But a knee injury changed everything. Davenport tore the anterior cruciate ligament and sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee and was out for the season. When the coaching staff realized it didn't have a capable person to step in for Davenport during spring practice, it recruited junior college quarterback Chris Keldorf.

Although Davenport returned in time for fall practice in 1996, he was unable to beat out Keldorf for the starting job. And Keldorf, a junior, went on to earn the ACC's top quarterback honors while leading the Tar Heels to a 9-2 regular-season record and the Gator Bowl.

"I didn't get the opportunity as soon as I wanted to," Davenport said. "But I always knew I had a year waiting. That was my senior year. I had the mind-set that I was going to keep working hard so when my senior year came, there would be no setbacks."

But Davenport's opportunity came much sooner. Keldorf sustained a season-ending ankle injury in the last game of the regular season, meaning Davenport got the Gator Bowl start.

The matchup against West Virginia was a big one for the Carolina program. A victory would mean a rare 10-win season. It also would bring a final top-10 ranking.

"I think the most pressure a young man could have on himself was the situation Oscar was put into in the Gator Bowl," UNC coach Mack Brown said. "To be sitting there as a backup quarterback, having played very little, in a game that mattered, and to be playing the No. 1 defense in the country to me, that's pressure."

Carolina won 20-13. Davenport was named MVP.

"It opened my eyes and made me realize the ability I really had," Davenport said. "I didn't really know what I could do. I hadn't been playing. It's a lot different in a game than practice, and I needed some game experience to see what kind of potential I had."

Davenport went back to the bench at the beginning of this season, but he was assured he would get playing time. And as the season unfolded, Davenport had more success moving the offense.

He started his first game against Maryland and will make just his sixth start when the Seminoles come to town. But his record is 5-0.

"He's done a great job," UNC center Jeff Saturday said. "He was in a backup role during the past few years, and he was in Chris' shadow for a year.

"But this year, he's really stepped up his game. He's gotten more focused on what defenses are doing, learning the reads and checks. He's done a great job of developing."

That should bode well for Davenport and the Tar Heels on Saturday. His mobility gives him an advantage over Keldorf, who was sacked eight times by the Seminoles in last year's 13-0 loss.

And against one of the nation's best defenses, that could prove huge in a game being billed as the biggest in UNC history.

"It's something I've always dreamed about," Davenport said. "I'm looking forward to it. Not many teams get the opportunity we have this year. If we go out and get it done, no questions need to be asked."

Davenport's starts

Oscar Davenport is undefeated as a starter this season:

Game Att Cp Yds TD Int

West Va. 26 14 175 1 0

Maryland 33 21 281 2 0

Virginia 32 22 181 2 0

N.C. State 29 15 189 0 0

Ga. Tech 41 26 360 1 2