AUBURN, Ala. — When Deshaun Davis was 7 years old, he scared his own teammates as much as he did his opponents.
Just three years after he stepped on the football field, Davis was making a name for himself in Prichard, Ala. Young players were literally struck by what happened when the linebacker tracked down offensive players. And even those on his own team were not safe from his punishing blows.
“People said he was a head hunter and started calling him Head,” Deshaun’s mother Constance Davis said. “He hit you so hard you were going to feel it and you weren’t getting back up quickly. They used to make it where if you messed up in practice and kept messing up, they got Deshaun to hit you to let you know you had to do it right.”
Now an Auburn sophomore, Davis sticks to striking enemies these days — but he’s still tasked with helping his team improve. And like he did years ago, Davis is responding.
Davis is helping inspire a defensive turnaround on the Plains this season. His physicality and voice again are having a lasting impact.
Following a leader
Constance Davis always was impressed with her second-oldest son’s presence.
Growing up, even if he was the youngest person in the room or away from the football field, Deshaun was someone adults intuitively respected. Older people listened to his opinions. They valued his input.
“People would look at me and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe what your child just said to me,’” Constance Davis recalled. “It’s amazing he’s always done that. It’s like it’s in him to be that leader, it’s something that comes natural to him.”
Though he was filled with energy, Deshaun also was sensible beyond his years. He never let little things bother him. When a problem surfaced, he calmly approached and talked though the challenge to reach the best solution. Sometimes he completely laughed it off.
A gridiron natural
This was the norm when Deshaun Davis arrived at Vigor High School, too. After transferring, he sat out his freshman football season, but in Year 2 he emerged as a leader on a talented and experienced team.
The Wolves fielded a top-ranked defense and lost in the Class 5A state championship game to Hartselle.
Jacoby Glenn, who went on to play at Central Florida (and plays defensive back for the Chicago Bears) never came across anyone quite like Davis.
“He was the only younger player I ever saw lead a team,” Glenn said. “He liked challenging people and playing in competitive situations. He played at a high level every time he was on the field and always played with heart. He gave coaches really everything they wanted out of a player.”
If Vigor head coach Ashley Johnson needed a big play or a defensive stop, he knew who to call to the sideline.
“He didn’t back from those situations at all,” Johnson said. “With some kids that’s too much pressure. They might say, ‘Maybe, I’ll make a play, but don’t put me in that position where I have to.’ Deshaun was a guy that when you asked him to make a play, a big smile spread across his face. It was always, ‘Oh, yeah. I’ll go do it.’”
And often, he did.
Davis had an uncanny ability to find the football. He took steps before anyone else, almost like he had a head start, darting toward offensive players like a missile.
“There was no caution about him,” Johnson said. “If you were in the way he was going to destroy you or run over you and make a play. That’s why he’s there all the time.”
The 5-foot-11 Davis was an All-State selection as a sophomore and a junior. ESPN and 247Sports ranked him a top-25 prospect at his position. Though he lacked the size and speed some Division I programs wanted, he received offers from powerhouse schools including Florida State and Clemson.
Getting his shot
Davis committed to Auburn on April 17, 2013. Later that afternoon, he learned he had a partially torn ACL (Auburn coaches were aware of the injury).
He missed his senior season at Vigor, but arrived at Auburn eager to show coaches what he could do. Former Auburn All-American linebacker Travis Williams — a graduate assistant at the time — stayed close to Davis when he arrived on campus, predicting the newcomer would develop into a leader of the defense.
Though it would take nearly three years for him to see the field again — he redshirted and saw limited action last season — Davis hasn’t slowed down one bit.
Davis proved he was a special kind of player to Williams, who was promoted to linebackers coach prior to this season. Davis also made another former Auburn great take notice.
“Deshaun is the epitome of Auburn football,” two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Takeo Spikes said. “He is the epitome of what Auburn football and Auburn players are about. He is a guy, his main goal wasn’t to come in and have press or headlines, it wasn’t his main goal. His goal was, ‘I want to come in and solidify myself as a player,’ and that’s what you get when you come to Auburn.”
The sophomore again is being asked to inspire his team. At halftime of Auburn’s SEC opener against Texas A&M, a group of offensive players sought out the linebacker.
The Tigers— trailing 16-10 to the No. 17 Aggies — needed a defensive spark and felt Davis, who had a quiet first half, could energize their team as he did during his first college start against No. 2 Clemson in the season opener.
Despite Davis’ best efforts (he finished the game with a career-high 6 tackles), Auburn came up short. Yet after the loss, Davis continued encouraging the team to focus on their potential and what they still could control.
Williams drills getting to the ball with “bad intentions” and Davis has been happy to accept the torch and employ the physicality expected of Auburn linebackers.
“I’ve always been a firm believer in what you really measure,” Spikes said. “It’s what you measure when you’re six feet deep, what’s between your sternum and your spine, and that’s your heart. He has plenty of it. When you see him out there on the field you can see he understands the game from the mental aspect. Whenever you have players who can dissect the game, understanding their deficiencies — maybe they can’t run as fast or jump as high — that’s one thing you can’t replace. Coaches love to know going into a game that they can depend on him because he gets it.”
And through the tough times, Davis is providing a voice of reason, dictating to his team how the season will unfold.
“I know for a fact that no one on our team has any give up,” Davis said. “I don’t feel like we’re a bad program, we’re still Auburn. We’re going to come out and fight every week, every down, every second…There’s just some things we’ve got to correct and we’ve got to do it quick if we want to reach the goals we set before the season. It hurts but we can still bounce back.”