AUBURN, Ala. — To call Ryan Davis’ climb to the top of the Auburn record books a shock would be an understatement.
Granted, the signs for a huge season from Davis were always there. He was Auburn’s leading returner in receptions from a season ago. He was now under an offensive coordinator who was known for utilizing quick screens and slants.
But Davis didn’t enter 2017 as the go-to guy for Auburn’s receivers. That preseason title would’ve gone to vertical threat Darius Slayton, spectacular catch magnet Kyle Davis or the physically imposing Nate Craig-Myers. All were highly touted recruits who boasted great measurables and were expected to explode after their first year of action.
The top receiver predictions wouldn’t have gone to Davis, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound former high school quarterback.
Yet Davis enters the SEC Championship Game against Georgia on Saturday as Auburn’s all-time best in receptions in a single season. He has 69 catches and is coming off an 11-catch, 139-yard performance in an Iron Bowl upset over then-No. 1 Alabama.
It’s a season Davis himself didn’t see coming.
“Not really, because there’s so many receivers that we have and pass the ball around to,” Davis said earlier this month. “But it’s a blast for me to be in the same conversation. … This is a blessing.”
If you ask the coaches who know Davis best — back home in St. Petersburg, Fla. — they sing a much different tune than their former standout player and many others on the Plains.
“I’m not surprised at this by a long shot,” said Cory Moore, Davis’ former coach at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg. “Ryan is an exceptional player. I mean, the stuff he’s doing, he’s been doing that. You look at film of him in high school, he’s been doing that stuff. To us down home, it’s like, that’s just Ryan.”
Woodrow Grady, who coached Davis for several years on the champion Team Tampa in 7-on-7 football, wonders why it took the speed slot receiver all the way to his junior year to have a standout season.
“Did I think he could do it? The answer is yes. Hell yes,” Grady said. “My response would be that it shouldn’t have taken them this long, to tell you the truth. What you see now, he was doing that stuff way back then.”
A firm football foundation
When Davis was 9 years old, he played for Grady and Tampa Bay Buccaneers legend Mike Alstott against a youth football team from Southern California coached by the one and only Snoop Dogg.
Davis was Grady’s quarterback, and the coaching veteran saw signs of a future star. Davis was smaller than everyone else, but it didn’t matter.
“Ryan has always been a special player and a special kid with the ball in his hands,” Grady said. “He’s quicker than he is fast, but you don’t underestimate his speed, because he can accelerate faster than most guys. He got that smoothness when he runs, which is a great talent.
“Ryan is a cross between a guy like T.Y. Hilton and a young Santana Moss, back in the day. That’s what you look at when you look at Ryan Davis.”
Those athletic gifts went hand-in-hand with the training he got at home. As Davis was playing youth football, his older brother, Chris, was making a name for himself as a two-way star in the state of Florida.
Chris Davis went to Florida State, where he played four years as a receiver before entering the NFL in 2007 as a fourth-round draft pick by the Tennessee Titans.
Ryan was in middle school when his older brother became a pro. For most of his competitive football career, he had a perfect example of what it takes to play at a high level right in front of him.
“He’s got a lot of people who can keep him balanced and grounded,” Moore said. “From an athletic standpoint, he saw his brother and what he did. His brother taught him what he should and shouldn’t do. He’s had a lot of good guys in his corner to help push him in the right direction.”
It also helped that his father, Willie, was his coach early in his high school days. Growing up with a coach and a future NFL player, Davis learned the importance of preparation from an early age.
“When you come from a family where your dad coached football and your brother played in the NFL, you understand it,” Grady said. “And the other thing is that he’s in the damn [film] room when everybody else is out running around and partying. Don’t fool yourself. He does his film study and knows who’s going to be guarding him.”
‘Ryan Davis ain’t a secondary option’
When Davis moved from Northeast High School to Lakewood before his junior season, his recruitment hit another level. He excelled as a dual-threat quarterback for Moore while lining up at receiver for Grady in the 7-on-7 circuit.
Under Moore, Davis played in a program that has churned out a who’s who of Tampa area football talent — Vernon Hargreaves III, Nelson Agholor, Dante Fowler Jr., Matt Jones, Ramik Wilson, Eric Striker, Artavis Scott, Leon McQuay III and Brian Poole, to name a few. He played alongside future high-profile prospects such as Derwin James, Auden Tate, Saivion Smith, Shavar Manuel and Isaac Nauta.
At Northeast and Lakewood, he became Pinellas County’s all-time leading passer with 6,760 yards. Davis led Lakewood to back-to-back 10-win seasons and had 35 touchdowns as a senior.
While those numbers were eye-popping, a couple of other numbers — 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds — kept some schools from pushing hard for Davis.
“If a kid has the prototypical height and weight, if he doesn’t pan out, it’s still a legitimately good decision by the head coach,” Moore said. “But if you take a kid who is smaller like Ryan and he doesn’t pan out, then a lot of times, you get really criticized.
“You have to take a chance on Ryan, because he didn’t fit the prototypical height or weight. But he plays like he’s 6-8, and he plays like he runs a 4.4. He’s a monster.”
For some schools, Davis became an add-on to what they perceived to be a package deal with 5-star defensive end, close friend and Team Tampa teammate Byron Cowart.
One of those schools was Florida. To hear Grady tell the story, Davis wanted to go to Florida. His brother’s alma mater, Florida State, didn’t have a spot left for him at receiver. Yet Florida wasn’t as focused on getting Davis as it should have been.
“Florida looked at Ryan as a secondary thought to Byron Cowart,” Grady said. “And I’ll never forget me telling [former Florida assistant Doug] Nussmeier, ‘You don’t know what the hell you’re looking at. Ryan Davis is a player on his own.’ … Now look at what Florida’s got and what they didn’t get.”
In the end, Davis chose Auburn on National Signing Day in 2015, shortly after Cowart’s decision to do the same. The Tigers had recently hired two former Florida assistants — Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson — and Gus Malzahn was intrigued by Davis’ potential at receiver.
“When we recruited Ryan, we knew he was a very talented young man,” Malzahn said earlier this month. “When you give him the football with some space, he’s really tough to handle.”
Nearly three years later, Florida is on its second different coach since Muschamp’s departure after struggling on offense. Auburn will play for the SEC title Saturday as the No. 2 team in the country with a top-20 offense in both yards and points.
“I hate to say it, but he had schools overlooking him, and Florida was one of them that he was really interested in at time,” Grady said. “They made him feel like he was a secondary option. Listen, Ryan Davis ain’t a secondary option to anybody.”
Work, hard work
After a freshman season in which he was used as a rusher on speed sweeps and a sophomore season with several high-target games, Davis entered 2017 in a crucial spot.
Auburn’s passing game got two injections of life with the arrivals of Lindsey and sophomore transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham. But the receivers were mostly unproven. Davis was the lone scholarship upperclassman for receivers coach Kodi Burns, flying under the radar behind the Tigers’ popular sophomores.
“Shout out to Coach Burns. He’s pushing me every day,” Davis said earlier this month. “He’s helping me in my development. I’m just taking coaching, and just waiting my time and my opportunity.”
Davis used the opportunity to take his game to the next level. He put in even more work in the weight room and film room while establishing a connection with Stidham after practices.
“I definitely put the hard work in and waited my time,” Davis said in September. “I feel like this is my time now to actually showcase it. It’s a season of opportunity that’s all by waiting and waiting, and now it’s come. There’s opportunities there, and I just have to seize it.”
That work caught the attention of his teammates, who saw the undersized Davis become an all-around weapon in Lindsey’s growing system.
“He worked so hard this offseason,” said junior cornerback Carlton Davis, another 2015 signee from the state of Florida. “Hats off to that guy. He’s one of the best receivers that I’ve faced, even during a game. In practice, when I’m going against him, I have to be on my A game. And he finally got his opportunity to show what he can do.”
In fall camp this year, junior linebacker Darrell Williams was asked about the toughest receiver he faced during practice.
Instead of Slayton, Craig-Myers or Kyle Davis, Williams went with the slippery target who was on the verge of a jaw-dropping season.
“He’s just taken it to another level every time, so I applaud him for that,” Williams said in August. “He sticks out to me because he’s been a good player, but his drive to be even better and even help the team even more than what he’s done — you can see that. The coaches can see that.”
Both Malzahn and Lindsey saw a difference in Davis, a hungrier veteran willing to lead the new-look passing attack.
“I tell you, Ryan has really worked extremely hard,” Malzahn said earlier this season. “He’s one of those guys that really wants the ball. He attacks the ball.”
Always there, always open
After Auburn’s 26-14 win in the Iron Bowl last weekend, Stidham had a smile on his face when Davis’ name came up in his interview session.
The junior receiver had caught 11 passes on 11 targets from Stidham against the No. 1 pass defense in the country in terms of yards per catch. Davis’ third catch broke Darvin Adams’ single-season record, and then he added 8 more. He’ll have at least two games to add to that total — something that Stidham won’t mind doing at all.
“I like throwing it to open people, and he just always seems to get open,” Stidham said.
The coach who took a chance on the smaller Davis likes it, too.
“Ryan has been a talented young man for a while, but he’s to a point now where he wants the ball,” Malzahn said this week. “He’s desperate to get open.”
It’s an incredible skill for a 5-foot-9 player who didn’t play receiver full-time during his high school days.
Davis’ ultra-reliable hands — his catch rate is a whopping 86.4 percent, per Football Study Hall — are the product of intensive training and carefully watching his brother’s rise to becoming an NFL receiver. His rushing talents after the catch are evidence of his time as a dual-threat quarterback, when he weaved through defenses with impressive vision and a nose for the end zone.
“Ryan Davis has proven that he’s one of our playmakers,” Lindsey said. “The thing about him is he catches the ball with his feet on the ground and continues to be moving. He’s smooth, and he’s a competitor.”
But how does Davis get open so often? That goes back to his experience as a quarterback, too.
“Because he’s a former quarterback, he knows where he needs to be to get the football,” Moore said. “He understands defensive coverages. He understands where he is in the progression, if he has time or if he doesn’t, to get in his route. All of those are good tools for him to make him an even better receiver, because he understands what he needs to do.”
Davis also isn’t the prototypical slot receiver. While a lot of his damage comes over the middle of the field, he’s lined up wide for screen passes and even some deeper routes this season.
“He doesn’t play just slot, and people underestimate what he can do,” Grady said. “He can play inside or outside. His size isn’t what you would look at and say, ‘Let me put you out wide.’ But what you’ve got to realize is that even with his size and the slight build he has, he can get off the ball and separate.
“For a receiver, what else do you want? I want a guy who can’t be pressed. I want a guy who can separate on his own. If you can do those two things, it doesn’t matter how tall you are. It doesn’t matter.”
The term “matchup nightmare” gets thrown around a lot with receivers, but most of the time, it applies to tall, freak athletes — not guys who Grady refers to as “175 pounds soaking wet” with a chuckle.
But when linebackers or safeties line up against Davis, he becomes just that.
“I don’t care if you’ve got a 5-star linebacker,” Grady said. “You’re talking about guys who are 6-2, 6-3, 250 pounds trying to guard a guy who’s 5-9 and runs a 4.4 in his sleep and can do a 3.9 shuttle. And you’re trying to cover him with a bigger dude? He can’t put his hands on him. … You running him against linebackers or bigger safeties? They can’t hang.”
Davis becomes an even bigger weapon in Lindsey’s RPO-based system because of his high energy on every play. No matter if the ball is handed off, thrown to the opposite side of the field or coming at Davis, he attacks defenses the same way.
“Everything looks the same, whether it’s a run play or a blocking play,” Moore said. “He’s 100 miles an hour. You can’t get a really good read on whether it’s a run or a pass with how he plays. Because of that, he’s able to make everything look the same.”
All that repetition has paid off for Davis, who now is knocking on the door of the first 70-catch season in Auburn football’s 120-plus-year history.
It may have surprised people in Auburn — and Davis himself — but the folks back in Tampa and St. Petersburg knew it was coming.
“What you’re seeing is not an anomaly,” Grady said. “When he makes a run or a cut, that just comes natural. I’ve been coaching him since he was 9. He’s been doing all of this since then. The rest of you guys are starting to get a taste of it. I’ve seen it for more than half of his life.”
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