AUBURN, Ala. — Before he could make his first touchdown catch as a Tiger, Ryan Davis had to become a dog.
That was the mindset Auburn wide receivers coach Kodi Burns worked to instill in Davis, a sophomore who went from only 2 touches in 2015 to the second-best receiver on the team at the halfway point of the 2016 season.
“You just have to be a dog,” Davis said Saturday after Auburn’s 38-14 win over Mississippi State. “Coach Burns preaches you have to be a dog and a star at your role … It’s about more than just making plays. It’s about blocking, too.”
Davis’ transition into becoming a dog for Burns paid off against Mississippi State, when he made his first career touchdown catch.
Like most of his routes, it was a short-yardage one — a quick strike on a pick play from teammate Darius Slayton that freed him up for a 3-yard grab.
Auburn's first touchdown: A perfectly executed pick play between Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis. That partial rollout for White helped, too. pic.twitter.com/BYw7j77oeG
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) October 9, 2016
“It was one of those moments you can’t explain, it was just one of those ‘in the moment’ type deals,” Davis said. “I finally got back in the end zone. It’s been a while, but once you get that first one, it feels good.”
Davis hadn’t scored a competitive touchdown in almost two whole years. The last one he had came when he was still a quarterback at Lakewood High School in his native St. Petersburg, Fla.
But wide receiver was where the 5-foot-9 Davis was projected to fit at the college level, and he joined the Tigers in 2015 as a 4-star prospect. Auburn wanted to use the speed that made him an excellent dual-threat quarterback and an all-time record holder in Florida’s Pinellas County in the open field.
As a true freshman, he got his first opportunity to show that quickness in a road win over Texas A&M when Gus Malzahn drew up his famous “Woody” trick play. The smaller Davis crouched behind the line of scrimmage in an under-center formation and took a disguised handoff. Once the Aggie defenders over-pursued, he was gone.
But Davis has developed into much more than a gadget player under Burns. With senior Marcus Davis struggling in recent games with injuries and some drops, Davis has become Auburn’s new go-to target on short- to intermediate-range passes.
“This year is really his first year to really get quality playing time,” Malzahn said. “He’s got some ‘miss-ability’ too. He’s very good laterally, and he’s getting consistent catching the football.”
Davis is currently second on the team behind Tony Stevens in receptions with 19, and he only averages 8.16 yards per catch. He’s the receiver Auburn uses to move the chains on quicker passes and, if the opportunity arises, make defenders look silly deeper downfield.
“He’s a confident player,” Auburn quarterback Sean White said. “He’s clutch. I just know he’s going to make the plays when it’s needed. He’s super quick and elusive. We just have to get the ball to him in space and let him make moves, and he’s going to make people miss. He’s exciting.”
Davis showcased that clutch factor against Mississippi State. Auburn needed to convert in the red zone against a Power 5 opponent — something it didn’t do much of in the first few games of the season — and he was called on in a 3rd-and-goal situation.
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The touchdown was a highlight-reel moment for a wide receiver who has become a regular contributor by doing the dirtiest of dirty work at the position. While Stevens and freshman Kyle Davis make the big catches downfield, Ryan Davis has extra responsibility to make plays in tighter spaces and lay more blocks.
“Some blocks, some people don’t see that,” Davis said. “The guys in front of us get all of the attention, but we also have to be a dog blocking, too. It’s a dog mentality you have to have.”
Davis has embraced that mentality for the Tigers through the first six games of his sophomore season. And while he might not ever be seen as the top dog of the receiving corps, the No. 2 receiver knows he has plenty of room to improve after his first major milestone of 2016.
“I’m comfortable right now,” Davis said. “I’m feel like, I’m not going to say I mastered the position, but I’m at a place right now where I can play at a real high level, but it’s only going up from here.”