In first full-strength game since 2018, Michigan walk-on Davis Warren makes lasting impression

Zack Shaw,

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It had been nearly four years since Davis Warren played a game of football at full health. Most of the fans filing into Michigan Stadium likely didn’t even know Warren’s name as they took their seats for the Wolverines 2022 Spring Game.

Looking right at home on Michigan’s turf, Warren made sure those same fans knew who he was by the time they left.

Michigan’s Spring Game featured plenty of stars. Some were former four- and five-star recruits, others were stars on last fall’s Big Ten championship team. But arguably no one shined brighter Saturday afternoon than Warren, who arrived at Michigan with zero stars and hardly any high school tape.

After his high school career was derailed by Leukemia and COVID-19 restrictions, the 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman strapped it up for his first game in almost three years, and his first fully healthy game since 2018.

Determined, Warren showed zip, accuracy and touch on his passes, completing 12 of 23 passes for 175 yards — 50 more than the rest of Michigan’s quarterbacks combined. No one is petitioning for Warren to start over Cade McNamara or J.J. McCarthy, but Warren enters the summer with a strong case to be next in line for the Wolverines.

“Leading up to this game, I mean, if there’s one dude who was in the film room with me every single time it was Davis,” McNamara said. “He was with me every week during game week last season. I had a prior relationship to him before he came to Michigan. But I think he’s very smart and I think him being able to play — as you mentioned, it has been three years.

“I think he played really well today.  I’m proud of him. That’s my guy. And I look forward to what he can do.”

While spring games can sometimes have the show stolen by a surprise walk-on or underutilized player, Warren’s backstory suggests his ascent might not be a one-scrimmage flash. After three seasons as a backup at Los Angeles Loyola, Warren reclassified to the 2021 class, and transferred to New Jersey’s Peddie School, in hopes that a breakout junior season could set him up for an FBS scholarship.

But that spring, Warren was diagnosed with Leukemia, a health blow that went beyond his football career.

“I mean there’s that initial shock of like, ‘Man, am I even gonna wake up tomorrow morning?,” Warren told last year. “That’s a question. That’s like the first thing that goes in your mind. Before this, I didn’t know anything about cancer. I didn’t know anything about leukemia. You see like the (ESPN) E:60s or the 30 for 30 stories on SportsCenter or College GameDay and are like, ‘Well that could never happen to me.’ “So when they first told me, I remember vividly I was just like, ‘Holy (crap), Davis, you’re gonna die.’”

Even after the initial shock, Warren was forecast to not even return to school for a full year, let alone football. Yet after four months in Chemotherapy and more than five months in the hospital, Warren began his return to football. He played that October, but did so at 160 pounds, and was ruled out for some games due to his low blood platelet counts (according to MLive, he bought Papaya juice extracts online in a successful last-ditch attempt to play the team’s season finale).

He finished the 2019 season completing completing 32-of-49 passes for 607 yards and six touchdowns with one interception. The performance garnered some Patriot League offers, but Warren was hoping to play FBS football. 

Those dreams took a hit in 2020, when after transferring to Suffield Academy in Connecticut, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the state to not allow football in the fall of 2020. Suffield Academy practiced through the fall, and the program’s coaching staff — who also produced Michigan products Brad Hawkins and Kechaun Bennett and previously had four-star prospect and Miami commit Tyler Van Dyke at quarterback — helped Warren garner a walk-on offer to Michigan.

Since arriving in Ann Arbor last summer, Warren has been a hit. He won the team’s scout team player of the week last fall, then was voted scout team offensive player of the year for the whole season — an award often won by scholarship players.

“He’s been doing that since he got here last year,” said rising junior running back Blake Corum. “He was on the scout team last year a lot, and he was just slinging it. You know? I don’t know how else to say it. So I’m not really shocked. That’s what he does.”

Added senior offensive tackle Ryan Hayes: “It’s nothing new. In practice last year, he was doing the same thing, so we know that Davis can ball out when he has to.”

Ultimately, it’s unclear what the future holds for Warren. His arm strength and accuracy passed the eye test on Saturday, but likely not enough so to contend with McNamara and fellow rising sophomore J.J. McCarthy for the starting job, even if he ultimately wins the No. 3 job. That presses Warren to decide if he’s content being a backup walk-on for the coming seasons, or try to transfer to a program offering a full ride elsewhere.

But that part of Warren’s journey didn’t matter on Saturday, a day that was a lot of things for the redshirt freshman. It was his first game in two and a half years, his first healthy game in three and a half years, a very public claim to be Michigan’s No. 3 quarterback and a payoff after a season on the scout team.

It was a showcase years in the making.

“He’s a talented guy that really hadn’t played football for two years when he got here,” co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss said last week. “We eased him back into it in training camp, taught him the offense, and then really just cut him loose on the scout team and he took the majority of reps as the scout team quarterback last year — which was exactly what he needed, because he needed to get back into 11-on-11 football. Guys whizzing around the pocket, Aidan Hutchinson trying to knock the ball off of him. That really was the best thing that could happen to him all year, doing that. Kinda got back into football because he’s really talented.

“We’re fortunate to have him here.”