Georgia linebacker Rian Davis overcomes injuries to earn first career start

ATHENS — Rian Davis was there. He had reached the end of his rope.

He asked for a meeting with Kirby Smart in 2020 and, sitting in the Georgia coach’s Butts-Mehre building office, Davis did so fully intent on quitting football.

And who could blame him? The career of the UGA linebacker had been a slog to that point. An endless string of injuries coupled with a continuous stream of all-world players at his position had kept Davis deep on the Bulldogs’ depth chart and limited almost exclusively to special-teams play.

Smart, though, was having none of it.

“I said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re staying with it,’” Smart shared Tuesday after the Bulldogs’ practice. “‘You’re going to stick it out, you’re going to keep playing, you’re going to keep practicing.’ He was ready to just shut it down, and I’m so glad that he didn’t.”

No, Davis did not, and it’s a good thing for the Bulldogs. Now a fourth-year junior, Davis made the first start of his career Saturday against Auburn. He recorded four tackles in Georgia’s 42-10 win at Sanford Stadium.

On Tuesday, Davis was interviewed for the first time in his UGA career. And, yes, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound product of Apopka, Fla., was feeling pretty good about deciding to take Smart’s advice that day in 2020 and stick it out.

“It meant a lot,” Davis said of getting his first career start. “I was very excited to be out there. It was a very emotional game for me. I’ve battled through a lot, so getting that first start and going out there with my brothers was a good time.”

Davis’ nickname is “Trouble.” That’s what everybody on the team calls him. It’s an incredibly apt moniker considering how troubled his football career has been.

The trouble for “Trouble” has been injuries. They have been his constant companion since he signed with Georgia as a four-star prospect out of Wekiva High School in central Florida.

Davis suffered a torn ACL his senior year and arrived at UGA as a freshman still recovering from reconstructive surgery.

Davis made it back to the field in 2019, only to go down with a shoulder injury. He underwent labrum surgery after the season.

After fighting through another long rehab, Davis earned a role with the Bulldogs on the kickoff return unit. He would play in seven of the 10 games but finished the season with only one assisted tackle.

Last year, Davis earned a backup role at middle linebacker behind Nakobe Dean, Quay Walker and Channing Tindall. He got in against Alabama-Birmingham in the second game of the season and had a tackle. Then he suffered a torn quadriceps in practice.

And back to the training room he went.

“Me and the training staff have a good relationship,” Davis cracked.

At that point, Davis was fully committed to the Bulldogs. Not so much a year before when he asked for that meeting with Smart.

“That was during the COVID season, and I was just going through a lot,” Davis said. “I had some other issues off the field and just the whole COVID thing and all the injuries. … I just wasn’t where I wanted to be. But coach Smart sat me down and talked to me and told me to stay patient and trust the process. You know, he said just to trust him, and that’s what I did.”

It wasn’t only the injuries that were holding back Davis. He was struggling academically, too, and not always committing himself to the voluntary work that the Bulldogs’ coaching staff suggests when players are not under their supervision.

Smart assured Davis that, with more dedication, he still believed he could flourish as an SEC player.

“He’s become a better person,” Smart said. “The No. 1 thing (he did before) was he would slack off academically and maybe not do what you’re supposed to do. (But) every academic report we’ve been getting, for the most part, has been good with him. He’s grown up. You see these guys as coaches, as a freshman or a sophomore and you think, ‘Man, is this guy going to make it?’ The next thing you know, in their third and fourth year, it hits them.”

Smart reiterated that young players rarely come in and make an immediate impact. It takes some a little longer either to embrace the grind that comes with being a major college athlete or simply to find themselves with an opportunity to contribute in games.

Many players run out of patience and hit the transfer portal. The ones who stick it out tend to receive their just reward. Senior safety Christopher Smith has had such a career arc. So did former Georgia linebackers Tae Crowder and Tindall, who now are flourishing in the NFL.

Davis is intimately familiar with all those stories. It remains his intent to emulate them.

Now healthy – and certainly knocking on wood – Davis hasn’t it found much easier getting on the field this year. Georgia continues to accumulate talent at linebacker, and Davis has found himself behind sophomores Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon on the depth chart and battling freshmen Xavian Sorey and Jalon Walker for playing time.

This past week, it became clear that Mondon was not going to be able to play because of an ankle injury. After witnessing several weeks of strong practices for Davis, linebackers coach Glenn Schumann told Davis early in the week he probably was going to get the starting nod.

“I didn’t really believe him,” Davis said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘we’ll see.’ But it really clicked in Wednesday or Thursday. I was, like, ‘OK, it’s time to do what you’re supposed to.’”

It was then that Davis decided to break the news to his mother. Of all the people on the planet, it is Melinda Davis who has been with her son every step of the way. Davis said it was his mother who sustained him through the darkest of times, who encouraged him to keep praying and just trust that God has a path for him, whether it includes a football field.

He texted her: “I’m starting Saturday.”

She immediately called him.

“She was, like, ‘I’m fixing to come up there,’” Davis said, unable to suppress his grin. “She said, ‘Save me some tickets.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’”

So, no matter what happens going forward, Davis and his mother always will have the memory of the day in 2022 when he got his first start against Auburn.

Davis hopes to make many more memories. Mondon is expected to come off the injury list this week or next. The competition for snaps in Georgia’s ultra-competitive linebacker rotation remains as intense as ever.

Davis feels like he played pretty good against the Tigers, though he knows there is room for much improvement. Schumann told him as much.

“It’s not easy to get good feedback out of ‘Schu,’” Davis jokingly said of his position coach. “He grades real hard. But he told me he was proud of me and how I stepped up and (that) overall I did a pretty good job out there.”

Later in the 10-minute question-and-answer session with reporters, Davis was asked about the No. 0 jersey he wears. He switched to that digit last year after wearing 12 his first two seasons at Georgia.

Zero, of course, is the same jersey number that 6-7, 280-pound tight end Darnell Washington wears.

“So, he calls me ‘Little Oh,’” Davis said to more laughter. “But I also call him ‘Little Oh’ because I’m older. … I don’t like being called Little Oh.”

But there is a real reason Davis went with zero.

“They said zero was going to be available, and I was, like, ‘if I get zero, I’m going to have zero problems out there.’ Zero busts, zero missed tackles. That’s my goal to eliminate all mistakes.”

And zero injuries.

“Yes, sir, that, too!” Davis said.