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Patience Paid Off For Jamin Davis
Davis waited for years for his opportunity to prove himself, and he didn't disappoint.
By Zach Selby Jun 30, 2021

DeAndre Square could not believe what he was hearing. It did not make sense; there was no way it was possible.

Square had gotten to know Jamin Davis pretty well over the past three years. He had seen Davis go from being a solid backup and special teams contributor to Kentucky's best tackler and earn All-SEC honors. His teammate and fellow starter ran interceptions back for touchdowns, covered some of the best pass-catchers in the 2021 draft class and became the first Wildcat in a decade to finish five consecutive games with double-digit tackles.

The NFL advisory committee knew all of that, and yet it slapped Davis with "a fourth- or fifth-round grade" as he prepared to enter the draft.

"When we would talk, I would tell him, 'That can't be your grade,'" Square said.

There are many in NFL circles who view the Washington Football Team's first-round pick as someone who came out of nowhere. Those who only look at stats would believe such a story; he had 42 tackles in 2018 and 2019 combined before his one year as a starter. Of course, those who view Davis as a surprise would be wrong, because he has been this talented for quite some time now. The only thing missing was a chance for him to prove himself, and that required one key element: patience.

Patience is a virtue that is found in short supply these days, especially in college sports. After all, athletes are only given a finite amount of time to prove themselves, and every moment not spent on the field means fewer points to put on their resume. But a lack of physical evidence does not always equal inactivity, and for his first three seasons with Kentucky, Davis was working and waiting for his opportunity.

So what did Davis get for all his stoicism? Only one of the best seasons a linebacker could have in college football. He led Kentucky with 102 tackles in 2020 and was one of four SEC players to average 10 or more stops last season. He earned an 87.5 run-stopping grade by Pro Football Focus and was the only player among FBS schools with at least 100 tackles and three interceptions.

Now, he will be contributing to one of the NFL's best statistical defenses last season with an opportunity to carry a hefty role, should he have a strong offseason and training camp. Those fourth- or fifth-round projections are hardly relevant anymore, unless people care enough to remind others how far the outside perception of the linebacker has changed in recent months. Clearly, patience paid off for Davis.

"You can tell his story to anybody and they'll feel motivated," Square said. "I've seen him at his lowest, and now I'm watching him at some of his highs. He still has so much improvement, so far to go. ...It's amazing to me to see that. It motivates me because he never gave up. In today's world, giving up is so easy, but he kept going. He's a first-rounder, and now he's living his dream."

“The athleticism has always been there"

There was a lot to like about Davis when Jon Sumrall came to Kentucky as the team's linebackers coach in 2019. The physical tools and traits were easy for Sumrall to see; he could run and had a deep well of potential, but he also had the right attitude and work ethic needed to be a successful player.

The only snag was that he was a little unproven since he was mostly a backup and core special teams player at that point. That was not completely his fault, though. There was, as Sumrall put it, a "log jam" at the position with a bevy of players in front of him, so the priority for getting Davis up to speed was to give him as many reps as possible.

The increased workload would help Davis develop a better football I.Q. To Sumrall, the transition from high school to college is just as rigorous as the one from college to the NFL because of how many calls players have to make. Getting that live experience gave Davis the chance to learn the entire defense as well as what opposing offenses were trying to do.

"Just that big picture of understanding the whole game and developing confidence through getting those reps," Sumrall said. "The athleticism has always been there. The work ethic has always been there. It's just a matter of the game slowing down and becoming less about processing and more about just going and playing instinctive football."

Some people like the idea of playing football, Sumrall said, but there are others who love putting in the work of being a good football player. It was pretty clear to Sumrall which category Davis fell into, and that resulted in him being able to play at several positions. But that wasn't just a result of hard work on the field; he was just as persistent in film study to ensure that he could be serviceable no matter where the coaches put him.

"He's a student of the game," Square said. "We always tried to get extra film in, and he was always learning. And once he learns something, he's very good at putting it out on the field."

Davis mostly played at the "MIKE" and "WILL" linebacker spots, although there was a time when he was almost switched to "SAM" because of how deep the middle linebacker position was. No matter where he was playing, though, Sumrall knew he could handle it.

"He does work hard. He does love football," Sumrall said. "He is willing to do whatever is asked of him to get better… And so when you have the physical attributes, coupled with the desire to mentally push yourself to get better, then you create a guy who does have a lot of versatility."

Davis stayed hungry as he groomed himself for whenever his opportunity would come. It was his way of living up to his mantra that "you can't have a $1 million dream with a minimum wage work ethic." He was used to being the overlooked and underrated player for most of his life. Of course he wanted to play more, but that would not matter much unless he was prepared for it.

"I just knew that if I was putting in the work behind the scenes and just doing whatever I needed to do that no matter what," Davis told Senior Vice President of Media and Content Julie Donaldson, "I would never be denied, no matter what was going on around me."

"Jamin was always patient and waiting his turn"

Most people are familiar with how Davis performed in 2020 by now, but the coaches were actually expecting that kind of production from him a year earlier.

Davis was already starting to prove to Sumrall that he deserved more chances to be on the field, but there was a slight issue that put those hopes on somewhat of a hold. There was a nagging injury, though not a major one, that the coaches felt was holding him back. They thought he was going to "bust on the scene that year," Sumrall said, but they decided to limit his reps for at least the first part of the season.

That meant other players would get more playing time ahead of him again, which might have been frustrating to some players, but this is the area where Square said Davis is different. 

"A lot of other guys at many other schools would probably get jealous or mad or try to transfer, but Jamin was always patient and waiting his turn. He knew that if he kept working and kept steady and kept improving his game, he was going to play."

Davis did not begin the season as a starter, but he did get more playing time and production. His tackles jumped from 10 to 32, and he started to improve in coverage. Linebackers need to have great vision, Square said, to be accomplished cover players. They need great body language and the ability to break on a route at any time. Davis, fortunately, has all of those skills.

"He's developed big time in coverage," Square said. "His vision and everything is top-tier."

The last four games were a pivotal point in Kentucky's season. The Wildcats were 4-5 halfway through November and needed to get at least two wins to be bowl eligible. It was during this time that Davis started to see the field more often. The road trip against Vanderbilt was the first time he recorded more than three tackles in a single game, and one week later, he got the first start of his career.

The final stretch of the Wildcats' season was a coming out party for Davis. He had at least six stops in every game, and he got his first-career interception and sack during that span. Kentucky won each matchup handedly and then grinded out a victory over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. 

"You could see like, 'Okay, it's about to come back on like we thought it was going to at the start of the year,'" Sumrall said. "He started to really be more assertive, become more vocal, sort of just going back to finding his confidence in what he was doing again. And then just letting his physical attributes just take over."

Davis feels like the life he grew up in prepared him for situations like this. He was rated as a three-star recruit coming out of Long County High School, according to his ESPN recruiting page, and only received a handful of offers from FBS schools. There were not a lot of eyes focused on what he was doing, even heading into his junior year despite the improvement he had made, but that did not phase him at all. He knew what kind of player he was.

"I just knew that whenever I got my opportunity and kept my faith," Davis said, "I was going to step onto the scene and show everyone who I am."

"It's time"

After three years of waiting, Davis' time had arrived. He opened the 2020 season as a starter; there were no nagging injuries to hinder him, no players ahead of him. He was in business, and business was good.

"It's time," Square said to Davis in a conversation they had before the season. "This is your job. Me and you, we're partners. Let's go."

Davis was no longer the player Square knew when he first arrived at Kentucky in 2018. The game was too fast for the old Davis, Square said, but the new Davis had improved mentally and physically, so much so that it was almost like he was a different person. There was still room to grow, but he was the player the Wildcats needed him to be.

Sumrall viewed Davis as knocking on the door for a year-and-a-half, but now he had busted the door down, and he was giving offenses fits each week.

There was never one singular moment where Sumrall knew Davis was destined for the NFL. There were, however, several plays that showed how far he had come. One of the best was his 75-yard interception returned for a touchdown in Week 4. He and Square talked about it before the game began. "One of us is going to get a pick," Square said while they were watching film. "They're going to throw it right in the middle of the field."

Sure enough, that is exactly what happened. Davis was in the right position to jump Jarrett Guarantano's pass, and Square led him into the end zone to give Kentucky a 14-0 lead.

"When he caught it, it seemed like he was kind of stunned, and I was like, 'Run!'" Square said. "That was one of my favorite plays."

The next came five games later against Florida and eventual No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts. The tight end had a typical day -- five receptions for 99 yards and three touchdowns -- but Sumrall was pleased with the way Davis matched up against him, particularly on one pass where he had to flip his hips and catch up with Pitts to force an incompletion.

But there were also several tackles each week that impressed Sumrall, whether it was making a stop in space or knocking someone back near the line of scrimmage. Everything, Sumrall said, was coming together for Davis.

"The playmaking stuff started to happen because he found confidence in communication and doing what he's doing with his eyes," he said.

Once the season was over, Davis had determined he was ready to take his game to the professional level, which Square knew was always the plan.

"Even before he became a starter, he always said he was going in the first round," Square said. "When he got the feedback from the pro scouts, the first grade he got wasn't that good. But I would always tell him, 'Once they watch your film, you're going to go high.'"

"He's what you look for in a football player"

Davis entered his pro day with confidence. He, Sumrall, Square and his teammates knew he was going to put up some good numbers. All he needed to do now was prove it.

His 4.41 40-yard dash, 11-foot broad jump and 42-inch vertical might not have surprised anyone at Kentucky, but it did elevate him into the national spotlight. Draft analysts were starting to look at him with a much higher regard; he started creeping into the first round in mock drafts. Eventually, he was predicted by many to be taken by Washington, and that prediction became a reality on April 29 when the team picked him 19th overall.

"He understands our culture, tremendous background, the kind of background I look for," said head coach Ron Rivera. "Very smart, intelligent young man, plays the game at the right tempo… He's what you look for in a football player."

Davis has been busy for the past four months between flying to Ashburn, Virginia, speaking with media members and getting to know his new teammates. He was jittery when he woke up before his first rookie minicamp, but once he put his helmet on, everything started to settle in, and he felt like himself.

"It was almost like a sigh of relief that I finally got all that extra outside noise out of the way and finally got a chance to get out there and just play some ball," Davis said.

One stage of Davis' journey is over; another is about to begin. He has a lot of work to do between now and when Washington takes on the Las Angeles Chargers in Week 1. He has seen a chunk of his action at middle linebacker, but Rivera believes he can play all three linebackers positions, so he will likely move around the defense until the coaches find the right spot for him.

Davis might be going down a new road, but many of the traits that got Davis to this point in his career will still be valuable. He will need all the hard work, determination and athleticism that he used to such great effect at Kentucky will be just as valuable at the next level. And most importantly, he will need to be patient as he develops into the player Rivera and the rest of Washington's coaches expect him to become one day.

If history gives any indication, patience will pay off for Davis.

"The entire time I played with a chip on my shoulder, always, and stayed the course and trusted the process," Davis said. "Now that everything happened the way it did, I'm just ready to show the world who I am."

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