The comparison isn’t difficult to draw.
Julian Burnett came to Georgia Tech in 2009 from Macon as a late addition to the signing class, a big-hitting linebacker with a nose for the ball who was overlooked because of his size. Replace Macon with Cairo and 2009 with 2013, and the rest describes freshman Paul “P.J.” Davis quite aptly. On top of that, Davis is wearing Burnett’s No. 40.
“If he can be like him, we’ll have a really good one,” linebackers coach Andy McCollum said. “Julian Burnett did a lot of great things for this program. P.J., size-wise and number-wise and motor-wise, there’s a lot of similarities, so we’ll see how that goes.”
Any comparison to Burnett is indeed weighty. Burnett led the Yellow Jackets in tackles in 2010 and 2011, earning second-team All-ACC honors as a junior. A fan favorite for his big hits and obvious passion for the game, Burnett saw his career cut short by a neck injury in the 2011 Sun Bowl.
Davis has made impressions, both literal and figurative, from the start of Tech’s preseason camp. He is 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, the shortest and lightest of any scholarship linebacker on the roster, but has won widespread approval. He caught the attention of defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu early on for his smarts and drive.
“I’ve been impressed by him, little No. 40,” Attaochu said.
With multiple linebackers down with injuries for Saturday morning’s scrimmage, defensive coordinator Ted Roof gave Davis plenty of snaps, which he validated by making a number of tackles. He seems to possess that indefinable knack for finding the ball.
“He’s got great instincts,” Roof said. “You’ll ask him, ‘Why’d you do that?’ ‘Well, I don’t know.’ And that’s OK. We don’t want to screw that one up.”
“Sometimes, guys just understand the game,” McCollum said. “He understands the game.”
As a freshman, Davis is not available to media until he plays in a game, per team policy.
Roof promoted Davis into the new two-deep depth chart released Tuesday as the No. 2 weakside linebacker behind Quayshawn Nealy. He’s the only freshman on the defensive two-deep and one of four on the entire depth chart. Not surprisingly, special-teams coordinator Dave Walkosky also is eyeing Davis as a potential contributor on kick coverage or return teams.
It is the start, at least, of an underdog tale. Davis was a two-star recruit at Cairo, mostly attracting FCS-level scholarship offers. He wowed Tech coaches at their camp going into his senior year, but they were unable to offer him a scholarship because they had already met their limit.
“Shoot, he played every position in camp,” said McCollum, also Tech’s recruiting coordinator. “He played linebacker, he played running back, he played safety. We looked at him everywhere.”
McCollum stayed in touch with Davis throughout the fall. When some players committed to Tech changed their minds days before national signing day, opening room for Davis, he quickly accepted Tech’s offer, himself backing off a commitment to Temple.
While blessed with instincts, Davis needs to learn his assignments in Roof’s scheme and become a more disciplined player, McCollum said.
“He is nowhere near ready to play, but he does understand the game, loves playing, plays fast and can run and is physical,” McCollum said.
As for the jersey number, Davis wore No. 21 in high school and did not request No. 40, which was memorably rotated among team members last season in honor of Burnett. Coach Paul Johnson was the one to assign him 40, which was one of the few unclaimed numbers from 30 to 69, the typical range for linebackers.
Thus far, it looks like it fits.
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