As the University of Memphis wrapped up another miserable slog of a season in 2012, the losses piling on as apathy and disinterest ran high, Akeem Davis did everything he could to make sure his college career ended with a tinge of pride.
Davis, the Tigers’ affable, charismatic strongside linebacker, was tired of defeat. Memphis had won just six of its 45 games since he had joined the program prior to the 2009 season, including just one of nine by mid-November of his senior year. A player who would start practice each day by challenging his teammates and breaking down the huddle, Davis called upon them to muster something — anything — to end that season with success.
They responded. The Tigers finished that year with victories in their final three games, outscoring opponents by an average of 23 points a game. Davis, their leader, was the catalyst.
“He just kept them grinding,” said Justin Fuente, who took over as the coach at Memphis prior to that season. “He just continued every single day. What I would give to have him on this team now.”
Now with the Washington Redskins, Davis is trying to use those same qualities — hard work, dedication and performance — in his attempt to make the team when the preseason ends on Thursday night.
The Redskins will wrap up their four-game exhibition slate at Tampa Bay, and not long after those final 60 minutes tick away, coaches and other personnel executives will huddle together and begin making decisions on the future of countless players, all in an attempt to determine who is best suited to helping a team win games when the regular season begins next week.
The goal, then, is to make those decisions easy. Davis has spent most of training camp and the preseason working as the third-string strong safety — a spot that puts him squarely on the roster bubble. To help his case, he has picked up responsibilities covering kickoffs and punts on special teams, standing out with a notable hit on New England punt returner Roy Finch in the third quarter of a preseason game on Aug. 7.
He has also worked to pick up every nuance of his responsibilities within the defense, focusing not just on the fundamentals of his position but also feeling comfortable enough to make calls and checks in the defensive backfield. Early in training camp, teammates marveled at the way in which Davis picked things up; even defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, his position coach, has been surprised at how thoroughly Davis can recognize the appropriate play call.
“If we go inside the meeting room, Akeem is going to rattle that thing off faster than me,” Morris said. “Sometimes I’ve got to ask Akeem what the playbook says on some certain calls. ‘Hey ‘Keem, what’s that say when we go back inside?’ ‘Backer, coach! Backer!’ ‘Thank you. Guys, we’re using ‘backer.’ He knows the playbook like no other.”
That depth of knowledge served Davis well last season at Memphis, where he served as a graduate assistant coach following his graduation from the university in 2013. Undrafted that April, his only flirtation with the NFL came via an invitation to a rookie minicamp in Seattle, where secondary coach Kris Richard told Davis he knew he could play in the league.
“It was pretty great advice for me, and it gave me the desire for me to keep doing what I needed to do, because they had the best secondary,” Davis said. “Coming from him, [it] gave me motivation to keep pushing and keep doing what I need to do.”
Davis did just that, continuing to work out at Memphis’ athletic facilities — a perk granted to him as a graduate assistant. After the season ended, Davis registered for the NFL’s regional combine in Atlanta, a scaled-down version of the annual event geared toward players trying to work their way into the league.
There, he ran the 40-yard dash in a time he said “was fast enough to raise some eyebrows” — a blistering 4.37 seconds. The Redskins, made aware of the feat, invited Davis in for a workout two days later and offered a contract later that week.
Davis, somehow, felt conflicted. A native of Laurel, Mississippi, who spent his freshman year 15 minutes down the road at Jones County Junior College, he had ingrained himself at Memphis. He had enjoyed working with the Tigers’ young defensive backs and even became a mentor to some.
When he registered for the regional combine, he did so knowing that he didn’t want to regret later in life giving up on his NFL dreams. Fuente, too, had tried to prime Davis for that possibility.
“We talked about how he may get a phone call from somebody, whether it be Canada or the NFL, and to go give it a shot,” Fuente said. “We talked about that for a while, and I told Akeem, ‘Listen’ — and I don’t think he needed me to tell him this — ‘this is the only time in your life you’re gonna have a chance to do this, so you’re not gonna burn any bridges with us if it happens. … We want you to go do it.’”
Davis signed a three-year, $1.5 million contract — standard for an undrafted rookie — and joined the Redskins in time for their offseason workouts.
He immediately made an impression on his new teammates: Cornerback E.J. Biggers remembered seeing Davis for the first time and being struck by his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame.
“He came in and everyone was like, ‘Who is this kid? He’s so big and everything,’” Biggers said. “He has the physique of a freakin’ wrestler or something like that.”
After a preseason in which Davis has had a chance to make his case, his final judgment is pending. One respite: The recent suspension of starting strong safety Brandon Meriweather for the first two games of the season should give Davis a greater chance of sticking.
If he doesn’t, the lessons learned over an offseason with the Redskins could give him a shot at the other end of the waiver wire. And, back home, a wife, a newborn daughter and a Master’s degree that remains two classes shy of completion await.
“The whole process has been a bumpy process, but you know, the process is always stressful.” Davis said. “When you progress and you succeed, that’s what makes you keep going the extra mile.”