TAMPA, Fla. — As Malik Davis makes his way to the locker room, the chant gets louder.
It’s halftime of the Class 5A semifinal and the Florida running back commit and his Jesuit Tigers are on the road against American Heritage, the eventual state champion.
Davis has averaged close to 200 yards per game, but a Patriots fan isn’t impressed with what he’s seen from the future Gator.
“200 on who? 200 on who?” the man shouts as Davis exits the field.
Averaging 11.5 yard per carry for the season, Davis usually has his undefeated Tigers up big at halftime and sits the final two quarters.
There would be no bench on this night. Down 21-0 with the season on the line, Davis goes off in the second half and leads the Tigers to a pair of touchdowns.
He finishes with 177 rushing yards on 25 carries, with a penalty negating a 65-run. Jesuit still falls to American Heritage, 21-14, but Davis hears no chants at the end of the game.
“That same fan walked up to me and goes, ‘Hey man, you got my respect. You’re the real deal,'” Davis recalls.
Like many kids in the area, Davis got his introduction to football in the Tampa Bay Youth Football League (TBYFL).
But his preparation for the league began much sooner.
“I had two older brothers that played and I used to put their helmets on and walk around with their shoulder pads after practices and games,” Davis says. “I just couldn’t wait to play.”
His mother, Angela Davis, wanted to sign Malik up for flag football at age 4. But he shot down the idea immediately.
“He wanted to play tackle like his brothers,” Angela Davis says. “He would ride in the car with a helmet on and he even slept with their stuff, sweaty and all. He didn’t care. He became obsessed with it. We had no clue it would turn into this.”
Davis was one of the TBYFL’s best players for his weight class, which also featured current Clemson wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud. Davis and McCloud would cross paths for years to come, but it all started in little league.
“When we played against Ray-Ray, that was our biggest game,” Davis says. “I remember the whole stands were packed. He was two years older, so I was comparing myself to someone who wasn’t the same age as me. That made me want to work hard.”
Davis had become a household name in the Tampa area by the time he reached high school, while McCloud was a top-100 recruit for the Class of 2015. However, Davis would not receive the same notoriety during his recruiting process.
He received more than 30 scholarship offers, but the majority of them came in the spring of his junior year and only a couple big-name schools showed interest. Davis believes he slipped through the cracks because he didn’t participate in camps and combines.
“People don’t realize how important that is,” Davis says. “Kids go to camps and get offers with no film. Players I knew from TBYFL used to walk up to me all the time and ask why I didn’t have more offers. I was the man in TBYFL and they couldn’t understand it.”
His mother adds, “He definitely got a late start to the process. We thought he was this local celebrity and recruiting would be a cakewalk. Then we went to some camps and nobody knew who Malik Davis was.”
Staying the course
Davis’ recruiting profile also took a hit because he played at a private, Catholic, all-male high school in Tampa. Despite being in Class 5A, college coaches don’t recruit Jesuit as much as other high schools in the talent-rich area.
“We’re considered a small school that doesn’t face competition,” Jesuit coach Matt Thompson says. “Malik can’t control the district he’s in, but he was a victim of it.
“He used to wonder why he didn’t get more recognition, but all that did is make him work harder. He never thought about leaving Jesuit. Looks where he’s at now.”
Though Malik resisted, his parents made the decision to send him to Jesuit for academic purposes. Their oldest sons had trouble staying on track in the public school system.
“Me thinking outside the box, I want him to be prepared for college because football is not guaranteed,” Angela Davis says. “It was a lot tougher and more challenging. Jesuit don’t care about weekends or holidays. You got homework. You cannot make it at that school without studying. There’s no way around it.”
Davis struggled mightily as ninth grader, failing tests and falling behind on his around-the-clock studies. He didn’t make it through the first week without an F.
“Coming from public middle school, I didn’t have homework. I didn’t even carry a book bag,” he says. “When I came to Jesuit, my Spanish teacher gave me 70 words and told me to go home and study them. Two days later, we had a quiz and I got a fat zero. I’ll never forget that.”
At the end of his freshmen year, Thompson spoke with Davis about having him tested for a learning disability. Thompson knew Davis could understand the material, but wondered if he needed more time on his exams to process information.
“He had some holes in his education and if you do, this place will find it,” Thompson says. “He made A’s in middle school. We were going to go get him tested in Gainesville. Had it all set up and everything, and he just did not want to go. He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I’m not dumb.’ He refused to take that test.”
It gave Davis the motivation to take school more seriously. His father, Myron Davis, invested in a tutor and Malik’s mother monitored his grades online.
“He went from an honor-roll student in public school to making C’s and D’s, so that was a wake-up call,” Myron Davis recalls. “It was a struggle for him until he realized he had to go home and study. When you don’t really want to do something, you don’t give it your 100 percent.”
Davis faced academic hurdles once again in 10th grade, but his grades steadily improved and the light came on for him as a junior. He made honor roll that year and raised his GPA past 3.0.
“Big difference,” Davis says. “I know my coach was trying to help me, but I felt so disrespected and I wasn’t going to accept that. There was no way possible I was taking that test, so it made me apply myself.”
Remaining at Jesuit paid off for Davis in the long run. He not only improved academically, but flourished on the football field.
After sharing carries as a freshman and sophomore, Davis exploded in 2015 with 2,337 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. Adding the 2,223 combined yards in his first two seasons, Davis entered his senior campaign with a chance to become the all-time leading rusher in Hillsborough County.
The record holder? Former Tampa Sickles running back Ray-Ray McCloud (5,783 yards).
“Yeah, that was pretty funny,” Davis says of chasing McCloud’s record. “We’re still friends after all these years, so that made it interesting. He’s like my big brother and he helped me through the recruiting process.
“When I was closing in on the record, Ray-Ray just told me to hold it down. He already knew. Every now and then I see his brother and he tells me Ray-Ray is still salty about the record.”
Davis passed McCloud on Oct. 14 and finished his high school career with 7,029 rushing yards. He only played in six full games last season and missed seven total games in previous years.
“He didn’t just break the record, he obliterated it,” says Thompson, who has coached in the Tampa Bay area for decades. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen come out of Hillsborough County.”
A week after passing McCloud, Davis received an offer from Florida coach Jim McElwain. The Gators had been evaluating him for months, but his record-setting performance sold the coaches and they needed a running back following the transfer of Jordan Cronkrite.
The offer caused Davis to postpone his planned decision announcement and he committed to UF on Oct. 26 after a conversation with his father.
“Malik and his mom felt like Florida was coming in at the last minute, but I know how these things work,” Myron Davis says. “This is a business. You can’t get your feelings caught up into this business. When a door opens up for you, take advantage.”
His mother adds, “When you do a job interview and there’s 50 applications, your name is not always first. They go through their list and they pick who they want to pick. It’s up to you when your name is called to take that opportunity.”
At the end of the recruiting process, Davis earned a 4-star rating from two recruiting services and schools such as Clemson and Georgia tried to flip him. He took the recognition as a small reward for staying the course at Jesuit.
“It could have been so easy to transfer to a big public school in Tampa,” Davis says. “I would’ve had more exposure and I never would’ve struggled with my grades. But I’m glad that I stuck with it. It made me who I am.”