By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Of all the attributes one might bestow upon LSU sophomore Drake Davis – great size, elite speed, and jaw-dropping hops – the idea of the 6-foot-4, 218-pound receiver being sneaky isn’t an obvious one.
But the proof is in the pudding, and the first tackle of his career – a solo effort against Texas A&M on a Tiger kickoff in the first quarter of last year’s November clash – was the result of some sideline conspiring with senior defensive back Dwayne Thomas.
“Dwayne’s an old dude,” Davis laughs. “He played a lot that game. He was like, ‘I need you to go out there for me.’ So when the huddle was on the left, we were both on the right. So he was like, ‘When they break, you just run out on the field and take my spot.’ That play, I made a tackle. I couldn’t hide.”
Davis would take the field for another kickoff before ex-special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto noticed and took him out. Fortunately for Davis, LSU would do plenty of kicking on the day, piling up 54 points against the Aggies. He picked up another tackle before game’s end.
“I snuck on the field for kickoff, and made a tackle,” he says. “I just did whatever I could to help the team.”
This year, Davis hopes his contributions will be a little more obvious, as he works to become a regular contributor on offense and special teams. Last year he managed a single catch for 19 yards against Jacksonville State, splitting up the bulk of his six appearances among special teams snaps, mostly. With the departures of Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural to the NFL, LSU has a need at the receiver spot, and Davis has all the physical tools required.
“We need him to (breakout),” says fellow wideout D.J. Chark, the only player back at the position with more than five career catches. “The position that he’s in, I feel like he’s going to excel. We’re going to be able to get him the ball a lot, and him being the natural athlete that he is, I feel like he’s going to be able to make the most of it.”
About that athleticism: Davis is a freak. His bio at LSUSports.net calls him “one of the most athletic players perhaps to ever wear an LSU football uniform.” He once missed a high school basketball game with a concussion he suffered by hitting his head on the rim in practice. He gave up football his junior year of high school to play soccer, a sport he still loves. He spoke to former LSU hoops coach Johnny Jones about walking on the LSU basketball team, opting later to focus fully on football in college. He ran a 4.3 40 last summer before his freshman season, at 6-foot-4 and well over 200 pounds.
— LSU Football Recruiting (@LSUFBrecruiting) June 7, 2016
Being a multi-sport prep athlete proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Davis has different tools many football-only athletes lack. From soccer, he says he learned “mind-body coordination,” and the techniques used to shield off defenders on the pitch help him now with shedding cornerbacks and creating separation on routes.
On the other hand, he’s still learning some of the intricacies of football necessary to step onto SEC fields with consistency.
“Drake Davis is a premier athlete and is one day going to be a great player,” head coach Ed Orgeron said last week. “You know, he didn’t play football most of his life. He’s still learning the game. As soon as he learns it, he’s got the chance to be a very, very good player.”
To speed up that learning curve, LSU is simplifying some things for Davis. While some players, like Chark, bounce between a number of receiver spots, Davis is sticking with the “X” spot exclusively, as opposed to the slot (“F”) or other outside position (“Z”), both of which demand more command of the playbook and necessary motions Matt Canada’s offense loves to use.
“F and Z, even Y, there’s a lot of shifts,” Davis says, laughing. “You have to know a lot of things to do those three positions.”
But there’s also a psychological component Davis knows is required before he can reach his full potential. He gravitated toward football because of his physical tools, but the traits he acquired from hours on the basketball court and the soccer field need a different application on the gridiron.
“I had to get away from being a finesse guy,” he says. “Playing soccer, playing basketball, you have to have a lot of finesse. Just using my body more, being an aggressive guy on the field.”
That’s why he’s sporting a new number these days. The minute backup quarterback Lindsey Scott transferred to East Mississippi Community College earlier this week, Davis requested – and received – his vacated No. 14 jersey. Some LSU fans made the connection to former Tiger star receiver Michael Clayton. Davis had another alum in mind, who wears the number at the pro level.
“I was thinking about Juice Landry, Jarvis Landry,” he says. “He always plays physical. That’s the way I want to play.”
Davis also draws from a current teammate for inspiration.
“I feel like I’m coming along with my mindset of what I need to do to dominate on the field at all times,” he says. “Like Russell Gage, when he wants to do something, you can’t stop him. Because mentally and physically, he’s able to do it, so you can’t stop that from happening. That’s the level I’m trying to get at.
“Right now I feel like I’m a little raw. Being behind DJ Chark and Russell Gage, it’s helped me a lot through this whole camp.”
For now, Davis remains behind Chark, Gage, and Derrick Dillon on the receiver depth chart, says Orgeron, but he has the inside track to be LSU’s primary kick returner this season. It’s a role he’s thrived in before – he took the first touch of his career at the IMG Academy, a kickoff return, 96 yards for a score. His taste of special teams stardom late last season has him hungry for more, though this time he’s aiming to be the one with the ball in his hands.
“You can’t be scared,” he says of returning kicks. “It’s always the fastest guys on kickoff, and they’re coming for you. Once you see a hole, you can’t tiptoe through it. You just have to hit it and hopefully, it breaks.”
Of late, it hasn’t broken for LSU – at home, at least. The last Tiger to return a kick for a score in Tiger Stadium was Eric Martin in 1981. It’s a slump of which Davis is well aware. A teammate recently joked with him about it, saying it must be impossible in an effort to put a little pressure on Davis. It only served to steel his resolve to take one the distance this year.
“I want to take that role for my team and break that streak of not returning a kickoff,” he says.
Meanwhile, he continues to work on honing his craft out wide. His improvement haven’t yet seen him crack the top three of the depth chart, but teammates are taking notice.
“Drake’s been focused, been working hard, doing whatever he’s asked to do,” says Chark. “He’s been making improvements, getting better with his route running, his catching, being a complete receiver.”
His coach has noticed, too.
“He’s stepped it up this week, as far as making plays,” Orgeron says. “I remember last spring, he had a couple of days where he looked like a first team (All) SEC big-time player. This is his first time going through it with us. So he’s kind of inconsistent right now. But as he gets consistent, I think he’s going to be a great player.”
Much of the credit for his improvement goes to the work Davis has been doing with Mickey Joseph, LSU’s new wide receivers coach, and newly-hired consultant Jerry Sullivan, a long-time NFL receivers coach. Though NCAA rules prohibit Sullivan from working with Davis and the other receivers personally, he’s given Joseph drills and film to share with the receivers, and Davis is soaking it all up.
“We’ve learned a lot of things from what Coach Sullivan has taught Coach Mickey,” he says. “The videos he’s provided for us, that helps a lot. Seeing professional guys who’ve struggled with the little details, but they’ve practiced and learned this stuff, and now they’re (having) breakout years, and now they’re (getting) $25 million contracts.
“It’s great to see it’s a process, so when you’re struggling and feel like you can’t get it, you just know it takes time.”
Now, Davis feels like it’s his time. He hopes to figure largely into the team’s plans on offense, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll have to sneak on the field to make his presence felt on special teams this season. But the mindset that led him to a pair of tackles against Texas A&M last year hasn’t changed. He’s here to help, anyway he can.
“Right now I just have what I need to do to make my brothers better and make myself better,” he says. “I feel like if I dedicate one second at a time for my team, the goal we’re trying to achieve is going to come.”