Hard not to root for Ray Davis, Kentucky’s persevering running back
No. 1 Georgia seeks stop the well-traveled, overachieving running back
Kentucky running back Ray Davis (1) picks up a first down before being tackled by Florida safety Jordan Castell at Kroger Field on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Lexington, Kentucky. (Silas Walker/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS)
ATHENS — Georgia wants to defeat Kentucky on Saturday in Sanford Stadium, and that means stuffing star running back Ray Davis. But beyond what happens in that top-20 matchup of SEC unbeatens, Davis is someone for whom everybody ought to be rooting.
To say the Wildcats’ fifth-year senior has survived and persevered doesn’t do his story justice. His every waking moment is a modern-day miracle. Never mind that he now carries a college diploma from Vanderbilt in his backpack and has the early-season distinction as the SEC’s best running back. With his background, just being an upright and productive citizen is an incredible accomplishment.
Add in the wrinkle that he had some apparent interest in coming to Georgia when he entered the transfer portal in December, and it’s easy to see why Davis has one of the more intriguing storylines of the 2023 football season. After his 280-yard, four-touchdown performance in the Wildcats’ win over Florida, we’ll all be hearing much more about Davis in the leadup to Saturday night’s 7 p.m. game between the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) and 20th-ranked Kentucky (5-0, 2-0).
Davis’ story begins in San Francisco, where he was born as Re’Mahn Walter Zhamar Davis. Raised in foster care because of incarcerated parents, Davis has 14 siblings and found himself homeless for a period around age 12. His incredible journey, as they tend to do, includes a handful of guardian angels and some no-nonsense mentors along the way. His route to Kentucky crisscrosses Stanford’s Shayne Skov, another great football player who overcame enormous odds to achieve his childhood dreams.
The primary benefactor in this drama is a woman named Lora Banks, whose son briefly played travel basketball with Davis. with Davis left without a ride after one out-of-town game, Banks agreed to carry Davis home with the caveat of asking the 15-year-old a thousand questions on the way. Getting answers, Lora Banks and her family decided to intervene.
Knowing Skov’s story at Stanford, the Banks family resolved to remove Davis from his somewhat hopeless situation out West. The next thing the teenager knew, he was moving across the country to attend the Trinity-Pawling School, a boarding school in Pawling, New York, famous for taking in Skov several years earlier. There, Davis was taken under the wing of a young coach named Nick LaFontaine, who kept Davis in line long enough for his unique football gifts to be discovered.
LaFontaine lived in the dorms along with his young family of a wife and two children. Therefore, he kept a close eye on the school’s newest live-in pupil.
“Oh, we butted heads every single day,” LaFontaine, now a student dean at the Cranbrook School in Bloomfield, Michigan, said Tuesday. “Ray was always testing me. Nothing really bad. Always a little out of dress code, showing up late, things like that.”
Credit: Sarah K. Spencer/AJC
Academically, Davis had a lot of ground to make up. LaFontaine said he was “a super-smart guy,” there were just “gaps in his knowledge” because of the periods of homelessness and missing school. Once exposed to instruction, showed himself to be a fast-learner. LaFontaine also found Davis trustworthy, and it wasn’t long before he was babysitting their children.
Davis landed at Trinity-Pawling as a 10th grader and immediately proved himself an incredible athlete. His senior year, after the starting quarterback abruptly left for another school, LaFontaine decided to put Davis at quarterback to run the option. Davis also started at cornerback, kick returner and punter.
“I swear he could punt in college,” LaFontaine said with a laugh. “He was like a 60-yard punter, I’m serious. And think about trying to defend him if he was back there at punter. ‘Are they really going to punt?’ He made it a lot of fun as a play-caller. No matter what you called, he’d make three people miss and go 50 yards for a touchdown.”
Davis’ football legend grew further at Blair Academy, a post-grad boarding school in Blairstown, New Jersey. He needed to go there to finish academic work. He played in only eight games, but rushed for 1,698 yards and 35 touchdowns.
An astounding 4,815 yards and 48 touchdowns in high school landed Davis a scholarship 100 miles south at Temple. But the American Athletic Conference could not contain Davis’ talents. He earned freshman All-American honors while gaining 1,017 total yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019 and left the school four games into the 2020 COVID-19 season. Davis made his way to Nashville, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt.
A season-ending toe injury cut short Davis’ 2021 campaign a week before the Commodores met Georgia in the fourth game of that season. It was just as well, as the Bulldogs rolled 62-0.
Davis was suited up for Vandy when they came to Athens in 2022. He managed only 29 yards on 12 carries as Georgia plowed its way to a 55-0 victory en route to a perfect season and a second consecutive national championship.
Davis caught the eye of the Kentucky Wildcats that season when he ran for 129 yards and a touchdown as the Commodores snapped a 26-game SEC losing streak in upsetting Kentucky 24-21. Accordingly, the Wildcats and coach Mark Stoops were the first to raise their hands for Davis when he entered the transfer portal in December.
Apparently, there also were overtures exchanged between the Bulldogs and Davis during this interim. Details are sketchy, but Georgia coach Kirby Smart acknowledged Monday some communication occurred.
“Somebody said something to me that he might have expressed interest,” Smart said Monday. “I never knew that; I never talked to Ray, never had any conversations with him. To be honest with you, we were in a situation where we had some backs coming back. We felt really good about Branson, Kendall, Daijun and the guys we had. You’re always looking for a better player, but we weren’t actively pursuing anyone.”
Georgia probably could use Davis. Already below their traditional running-back numbers at the start of the season, the Bulldogs since have seen the position ravaged by injuries. Sophomore Branson Robinson (out for the season with knee injury), freshman Roderick Robinson (ankle) and senior Kendall Milton (knee) all have been sidelined for extended periods, while redshirt freshman Andrew Paul is being eased back into competition a year removed from an ACL reconstruction.
That has left senior Daijun Edwards as the Bulldogs’ only fully available, scholarship tailback, and he missed the first two games with an MCL sprain. Walk-on Cash Jones and converted split end Dillon Bell have gotten the majority of the carries left over by Edwards.
As Kentucky and Georgia prepare to meet as two of the SEC’s three remaining unbeatens, the Bulldogs’ prospects certainly would look better with Davis in red and black. But the 5-foot-10, 216-pound’s destiny long has been colored in Kentucky blue.
“Like I’ve told you before, most of these kids, when they go in the portal probably know where they’re going,” Smart said.
Indeed, it was the Wildcats’ reputation as “RBU” — in Davis’ mind, at least — that attracted him to the Bluegrass State. The school has produced two of the league’s top rushers in the past few years, Benny Snell and Chris Rodriguez.
“It played a huge (role) as to why I wanted to come here,” Davis told 247Sports when he signed with Kentucky. “Again, the history, I would say this is ‘RBU’ with the two guys that were here (Snell and Rodriguez), the ‘Big Blue Wall,’ it’s been pretty historic throughout the years. So, that was big.”
Five games in, it looks like a prudent decision for Davis, especially after Saturday’s performance against the Gators. His 280-yard rushing mark fell short of Moe Williams’ 299-yard school record, but it was the most gained in FBS football this season. Davis had 211 yards and two touchdowns on only 11 carries in the first half and added a 9-yard TD reception as well. That was against a Florida defense that went into Lexington leading the SEC against the run.
For this, Davis took no credit. He always makes a point to pay homage what he calls the “Big Blue Wall,” which is Kentucky’s veteran offensive line. Like Davis, the Cats’ offense features a bunch of multiyear seniors, including “super senior” left tackle Marques Cox, fifth-senior center Tanner Bowles and senior right tackle Jeremy Flax. Along with sixth-year senior quarterback Devin Leary, a transfer from N.C. State, and sixth-year senior wideout Tayvion Robinson, the Wildcats are an experienced bunch.
No team in America has been better than the Bulldogs at stuffing the run the past two years. Georgia allowed only 78.9 and 77.0 yards rushing per game over the past two seasons, respectively. It hasn’t been as stingy in 2023, however.
Against Auburn, the Bulldogs gave up 219 yards rushing. That represented the first time since LSU ran for 275 in 2018 — a span of 65 games — that a Georgia team has allowed more than 200. Granted, much of that came from quarterback runs (Auburn’s Payton Thorne and Robby Ashford combined for 125 yards Saturday), but ground game is ground game in the Bulldogs’ book, and anything substantial via that mode is impermissible, they say.
As it is, the Bulldogs enter Saturday’s game against Kentucky giving up 113.4 yards per game. That ranks 38th nationally and sixth among SEC teams. Now Georgia has to figure out how to slow Davis.
“An exceptional back, as good as I’ve seen in a long time,” Smart said. “This guy’s smooth, explosive, he pass-protects really well, he protects the ball, he’s aggressive in the way he runs. He reminds me of (ex-Bulldog D’Andre) Swift, just a little bigger. He has a lot of the same cuts, a one-cut runner. And they do a tremendous job of blocking for him. So it’s not all him. Kentucky has a run game. I mean, it seems like they always have a back, right?”
Right. And a really good one with a really good story at the moment. All those individuals who have participated Davis’ journey are loving this latest chapter. The Banks family makes it to almost every game every week. The LaFontaines haven’t made one yet, but they plan to attend Kentucky’s home game against Alabama on Nov. 11.
In the meantime, coach “Loff,” as Davis calls him, along with his 8-year-old daughter, Sawyer, and 12-year-old son, Lincoln, watch Davis’ games on TV every chance they get. They plan to tune in Saturday night when the Wildcats try to break a 13-game losing streak to Georgia.
“I can’t wait to watch,” LaFontaine said Tuesday. “Obviously, Georgia is unbelievable. But Kentucky was great the other day against a good Florida defense. So, we’ll see.”
For LaFontaine, the football stuff is gravy. Sure, he wants to see his former charge set rushing records and make it to the NFL. But he already has seen Davis achieve far beyond what just a few years ago might have seen impossible. They text often and FaceTime occasionally to swap stories and share memories.
“He’s been through so much, and he’s living the dream now. But it’s also heartwarming to see that he understands that,” LaFontaine said. “He knows he didn’t get there by himself. He knows people like the Banks family and others were instrumental in getting him to where’s he’s at. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Georgia vs. Kentucky, 7 p.m., ESPN, 750, 1380, 95.5