It’s a running joke between Auburn’s Kevin Steele and Deshaun Davis. Steele holds the title and talks to media, but Davis is really the one in charge of the Tigers defense.
“I’m actually the defensive coordinator,” Davis joked during Peach Bowl media days. “He just gets paid.”
Of course, Davis doesn’t call all the shots (yet). For now, his transformation from rambunctious middle-schooler to top tackler on the Tigers’ dominant defense is more than enough. It’s a position many doubted Davis would ever find himself in — and he’s just getting started.
Auburn football is losing several valuable leaders ahead of the 2018 season. Fortunately, Davis is sticking around. It means the 5-foot-11, 246-pound linebacker will be on the field to make the right calls, generate energy and continue proving his doubters wrong.
“It means a lot having a guy like that who brings a lot of energy every day; he loves everybody,” linebacker Darrell Williams said. “He’s just a big positive to the team. When you’ve got guys like that, it’s always a blessing.”
Davis’ homeroom teacher at Clark-Shaw Magnet School in Mobile, Ala., wouldn’t have described Davis as a blessing. A terror likely would have been his word choice.
“Yeah, I was kind of an active kid,” Davis said. “I was always smart, always a bright kid, but I was just active. I loved to have fun and I didn’t know the difference between recess and class time when I was growing up.”
It’s at least part of the reason Davis found himself in the middle of altercations as a 12-year-old. And that, in turn, is how Davis’ mom showed up at school. Her son had been kicked out, left with no option but to transfer.
Constance Davis-Jefferson sought out her son’s teacher to see what exactly had unfolded.
“He came in and tried to tell her that I was a bad kid,” Davis recalled. “He basically told her she did a terrible job raising me, and that I didn’t have long to live and I’d be lucky to make it out of high school if I weren’t dead or in jail.”
The exchange left Davis-Jefferson, then a single mother providing for her two sons, livid and Davis devastated.
“It was kind of heartbreaking for me,” Davis said. “For somebody to even — to even give someone the confidence to look at my mom to say she did a terrible job of raising me.
“That was a turning point in my life because I feel like that was the first time that someone really looked at me and doubted me. Told me basically I wasn’t going to be anything. I kind of took that and used it as motivation. I knew for me especially, it was going to be a key in my life to help me be successful.”
Davis saw the sacrifices his mother was making to provide for their family and realized how he was being raised and how he was acting didn’t add up.
Having worn No. 12 jerseys throughout his days of youth sports, he changed his number to 2 after that incident. It would serve as a reminder of the first person to underestimate him. All these years later, that day still fires Davis up and even inspires his number choice.
“I wear 57 right now because five plus seven equals twelve,” Davis explained.
While one teacher was the first to question Davis, he wasn’t the last. In the years that followed, people continued to wonder if Davis had what it would take to contribute to a major Division I football program. The outside chatter about him being undersized and slow got old quickly.
Yet, even before Davis began playing for Auburn linebackers coach Travis Williams, he’d been trying to be “the king of the toos.”
“That definitely takes place in my life a lot,” Davis said. “Somebody’s always going to say you’re too this, can’t do this because you’re too this. I mean, in my life that’s something I’ve always had to do, that’s something I’m going to continue to do. That’s part of being competitive and being a man. It’s just life, but I think I’m doing a great job of that.”
Others agree. Junior Montavious Atkinson took on a bigger role in 2017. To get there, he had help from Davis.
“Just playing with Deshaun, I mean, it’s been really great,” Atkinson said. “He’s a big communicator and if you were slacking one play or just didn’t get the call one play, he would probably get you on the same page, just communicating. He’s a talker, he’s a communicator. He plays hard and you just feed off of him.”
Davis’ stats speak for themselves. The kid that no one believed could compete in the Southeastern Conference led Auburn’s defense with 82 total tackles in 2017. The Tigers finished November by defeating Georgia and Alabama losses inside Jordan-Hare, clinching the SEC West title. The biggest achievements, however, came in the weeks following the conference title game.
On Dec. 16, Davis walked across the graduation stage in Auburn Arena in front of teammates, friends, peers, family and, of course, his mom. He posted a series of images on his Instagram sharing the story of his middle school teacher. He became the third person in his family to graduate from college.
3rd Person ever to graduate college in my family 🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/n0G8WAVvvj
— ⭐️Deshaun Davis⭐ (@_Davis_Boy12) December 16, 2017
At the age of 12, I was kicked out of school … My teacher at the time literally looked my mother in her face and told her “You did a terrible job raising your son, he’d be dead or in jail before he can make it out of high school.” Well umm …. 🤷🏾♂️ pic.twitter.com/4EKEW8Lte6
— ⭐️Deshaun Davis⭐ (@_Davis_Boy12) December 16, 2017
Davis, a media studies major, will return to The Plains and get his masters degree. He’s not sure in what yet, but he has time to decide.
He’s always seized a leadership role, whether he was wearing a football uniform or hanging out with friends. Sitting back and staying quiet just isn’t Davis’ style. But during his final season as a Tiger, Davis plans to create an even bigger role and hopes to maybe even claim an official title of his own: senior captain.
“That would mean a lot. Just because this is my university, I’m a gradate of this university now and Auburn’s given me a lot of opportunities to change my life and change my family’s life,” Davis said. “Being able to be a captain of this football team is, you know, that’s something you’ll go down in history for and no one can ever take from you. That’s something that’s voted on by the players. If players want to vote me as captain, that would mean a lot to me.”
Next season will be the first year in a long time that Davis will be playing without childhood best friend Tre’ Williams by his side. The outgoing senior will have hopefully joined an NFL roster, but he knows what will be happening on The Plains.
Davis will still be fighting for the first spot in line in drills, just as he battled Williams for it for years. He’ll be one of the loudest players in between the white lines and one of the most respected.
“I’m pretty sure he’ll be the same way next year, front of the line, starting everything,” Williams predicted. “A lot of guys listen to him, that’s all that matters. If you’re loud and nobody listens to you, that’s when the problems come. He’s a loud leader and a lot of people are drawn to him. He’s already a really good leader,” Williams said. “I look to him for certain things, he looked to me for certain things. And you know, the team’s going to look to him next year for a lot of things. I really look forward to seeing that.”
Williams admits there’s also a little more truth to the co-defensive coordinator tag than people probably realize.
“When we do like our scrimmages with the young guys, Coach Steele lets Deshaun call the plays,” Williams said. “When we’re doing 7-on-7 with the older guys, it’s like, ‘All right, Deshaun, call it.’ He’s smart like that. You put Deshaun on the board and he’ll give you anything.”
When Davis’ final playing days near he hopes to get a shot at the next level before turning to coaching and then to broadcasting. He’s studied how professional athletes such as LeBron James and Ray Lewis have led their teams. His last season in orange and blue is another chance for him to perfect his own style.
“There’s different ways to lead,” Davis said. “For me, you’ve gotta have a definite grasp of who you are as a person so you can branch off and help other people. On the field, I try to lead on the field with my energy, something like that.”
The pregame routine will remain the same, too. Before each game, Davis will text his mother to get a picture of where she’s sitting. When he runs out of the tunnel he’ll search until he finds her. And not one game passes without Davis attempting to crush the lies his 12-year-old self was told.
“I have to put my eyes on my momma before I take one snap of football. If I have to look around that whole stadium, I have to put my eyes on my mom,” Davis said. “When I make a play sometimes I’ll look up and just to see that smile on her face it just gives me more motivation to keep making her proud and keep making more plays. I know she’s proud of her children.”