Brad Davis is grinning. It's a subtle grin, a slight sign of emotion within this small thumbnail photo that's not unlike any of the other expressions made by the students on this page of Belaire High School's 1998 yearbook.
The difference is Davis is looking away from the camera. His eyes are fixed beyond the orange mortarboard tassel that's dangling just above his left shoulder.
What's he looking at? Hard to say. But keep flipping pages in that direction. Eventually a story emerges, a past that helps explain why an up-and-coming offensive line coach decided to leave one Southeastern Conference program for another three months before the football season begins.
The collection of photos, headlines and captions in this 1998 edition of Veda show how unlikely a journey it was for an unknown right tackle on an 0-10 football team to receive a scholarship from Oklahoma, win a national championship, then rise up in a coaching career that's included stops at Florida, Missouri and Arkansas.
There are names and faces within these pages who will tell you stories about a charismatic teenager who, even on a winless team, helped build a culture that produced winning seasons in the years after he was gone.
Those same people aren't surprised that teenager grew up to be a meticulous technician known for his ability to easily teach scheme and relate to his players. They understand why Davis became an effective recruiter who was helping his mentor and former coach at Oklahoma, Sam Pittman, rebuild Arkansas into a respectable program again.
What you'll find inside Veda reinforces the message Davis addressed to Arkansas fans on social media Friday, a day after he signed terms with LSU that, once approved by the university's Board of Supervisors, will pay him an average of $830,000 annually over three years.
He's moving back to Louisiana. Back where his parents still live. Back where most of his family still resides.
"I am sorry for those who I've let down," Davis wrote, "but hope those who truly know me will be happy for the opportunity to return Home!"
Captains Brad Davis and Mewelde Moore meet the captains of the Denham Springs team.
Perhaps there's an initial question after reading that yearbook caption: "Wait, a team with an Oklahoma lineman and Tulane's all-time leading rusher didn't win a game?"
Moore laughed when he was asked about the results of that 1997 season. What else could he do about a distant memory? Back when he didn't know he'd become a three-time All-Conference USA running back, a fourth-round pick who'd play nine NFL seasons and win Super Bowl XLIII with the Pittsburgh Steelers?
"It was very tough," Moore said.
There's some necessary context, he added. This was back when the medical magnet program was still operating at Belaire. About 400 students were enrolled in the program before it was controversially moved to Glen Oaks in a transition of court-ordered desegregation efforts that began in 1998.
Belaire was not a school known for its football team. The Bengals hadn't been to the playoffs since 1988 and often struggled to field enough players to be competitive in their 5A classification. Former Belaire defensive coordinator Randy Carr said it always seemed they had just as many coaches as they had players, and, when he first started coaching there in 1995, the Bengals only had 21 players on its varsity team.
Moore and Davis were among the students across Baton Rouge who attended Belaire for academic opportunities that were built around a medical program that gave students a chance to work with hospital beds, X-ray machines and high-tech dental equipment.
"We were a group of nerds who had athletic ability," Moore said.
Davis was a particularly giant nerd, a bruising lineman who commanded a 6-foot-4, 305-pound frame by the time he was a senior.
Mark Carroll, Belaire's offensive coordinator at the time, said the Bengals ran the ball behind Davis out of its Wing-T offense as much as possible. The few times Carroll asked his left-handed quarterback, Don Barrow, to throw the ball, he knew Barrow wouldn't have any trouble with protection on his blind side. Barrow, now McKinley High's baseball coach, said he wasn't sacked all season.
Davis held the team together by setting his own standard, Barrow said. It was Davis who spoke first in the huddles, keeping the offense collected during a frustrating winless season in which five games were decided by a touchdown or less.
Division I schools didn't really bother recruiting Belaire, Carr said. Hometown LSU would only come around when there was a new coach who was making his introductions. Such a circumstance on a historically struggling high school program would seemingly bury any prospect.
And remember, this was the pre-social media era. There was no YouTube. No major digital hub for highlight tapes. The internet was just becoming a mainstream commodity. Carr said the coaching staff was still compiling highlight reels of their players onto VHS tapes and mailing them to college programs in brown paper bags.
Somehow — Carr can't recall exactly how, nor can Barrow or Moore — Davis uploaded his own highlights onto the internet and sent it to college programs. Suddenly, Oklahoma began inquiring with Belaire coaches about Davis and asking for more film.
"It was a huge surprise for all of us," Carr said. "Brad was so intelligent. He was ahead of his time. Putting his highlights on the internet? It was such an unheard type of thing."
So began Davis' connection with Sam Pittman, who was Oklahoma's offensive line coach at the time. Pittman became a mentor who'd eventually hire Davis as a graduate assistant while he was the offensive line coach at North Carolina in 2008, and, when Pittman became the head coach at Arkansas in 2020, his first staff hire was adding Davis as his offensive line coach.
But that first move to Oklahoma? Moore said he's never told Davis, but that unlikely signing with a major college program "created one of the biggest eye-openers" for Moore. Belaire players just didn't sign with Division I schools. Davis showed that it was possible.
"That created a confidence in me that all I had to do was work hard and really get after it, " Moore said, "and the good Lord will bless you, like Brad, and you'll have the opportunity to go play big-time football."
Mike Roach recognized the name on the Southern Lab job application.
Brad Davis... Brad Davis... Brad Davis...
Oh, yes, that was it: Roach had visited Belaire High on recruiting trips while he was the defensive coordinator at Grambling State. Now, it was 2003, and Roach was assembling his own staff at Southern Lab.
Roach scanned the rest of the resumé.
BCS National Champion, 2000. Oklahoma's Most Valuable Lineman, 2002.
Worth a shot.
Days later, Davis sat across from Roach during an interview, watching the Southern Lab coach draw up several defensive fronts and blitz packages.
After each drawing, Roach handed over the pen and said the same thing: "Now, you block this."
"He blocked every single one," said Roach, whose second stint at Southern Lab lasted from 2004 until 2010. "I said, 'Man, this guy may have it!'"
Davis was Southern Lab's offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator in 2003 and 2004. Really, Roach said, Davis was more like his run-game coordinator. Roach tried to run the high school program with staff setups like he'd seen in college, and the young Davis had an impressive handle on complicated schemes for someone just beginning his career.
Preparing for every game was much like that first interview. Roach presented the opponent's fronts and blitz packages. He'd turn them over to his young coach. Now, you block this. Soon enough, it was clear to Roach that Davis wouldn't be coaching at the high school level for very long.
Davis had a "passion for technique," Roach said. He had the confidence and fortitude to last in a hectic college environment, and he possessed a thirst for wanting to learn more about the game that would make him successful. He bugged Roach all the time about schemes. Show me that front. Show me how you did that. By the end of Davis' second season with Southern Lab, Roach urged him to move on.
"I told him, You've got too much on the ball to stay here," Roach said. "You've got to test yourself. As young as you are, the sky's the limit."
Now, at 41, Davis has become the kind of hire LSU coach Ed Orgeron called a "game changer" during a Tuesday morning radio interview on WNXX-FM's "Off the Bench." He's a renowned recruiter and offensive line technician whose services have constantly been pursued. After Pittman made Davis his first hire at Arkansas in January 2020, Pittman told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette he had to give Davis a $100,000 pay raise two months later when an unnamed rival SEC West team tried to hire Davis away.
"He is as good an offensive line coach as there is in the country," Pittman said. "If you go by jobs that he has been offered, he is as good an O-line coach as there is in the country because he has been offered a bunch. He has been offered some since he has been here."
Davis helped Pittman in creating a hard-nosed Arkansas offense that made significant strides towards competing again despite its 3-7 record in 2020. Momentum was building in recruiting. Davis' established relationship with four-star lineman Marcus Henderson while he was on Missouri's staff was key in Arkansas signing Henderson in the months after Pittman was hired. The Razorbacks signed three more linemen in 2021, and Davis helped keep three-star offensive tackle Terry Wells in-state after the recruit was pursued by Miami and Mississippi State.
Those who've coached with Davis say recruiting is one of his biggest strengths. BJ James coached with Davis at NAIA-level Doane College in 2005 — where Davis was an offensive line coach and run-game coordinator in his first full-time coaching job — and remembered Davis found and signed the kind of talented players Doane normally never had a chance at signing.
There was prowess in developing the talent, too, James said. One of Davis' top recruits, Jake Ryba, was a powerful lineman who could squat 650 pounds and ended up getting a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings. Ryba didn't make the NFL roster. But that wasn't the point. Just getting a tryout was a big deal at the small school in Crete, Nebraska.
"It was absolutely huge," said James, an assistant coach at Doane College from 2004 until 2012. "That just doesn't happen. I was at Doane 10 years and I never saw another player get a look like that again."
Davis carried a sincere relatability, other coaches say. He was someone who could arrive on campus and easily build trust and command attention with his players. Stan Eggen, a longtime defensive line coach, said Davis was the bridge between Eggen and his linemen when Davis worked for him as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M in 2006 and 2007.
"He could capture a room," said Eggen, who was Arizona's defensive line coach in 2020 before the staff was let go upon the firing of coach Kevin Sumlin. "Coaching is teaching. You have to be able to walk in and get everybody's attention. You have to gain confidence in the players. That's what he can do."
Orgeron said Davis first met with LSU's offensive line on Monday. It's a unit that regressed in 2020 under former offensive line coach James Cregg, with whom LSU parted ways last week for reasons sources told The Advocate are related to NCAA recruiting violations.
Still, all five starters return. Right tackle Austin Deculus and left guard Ed Ingram both started on the offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award for nation's top blocking unit in 2019. The main issue for LSU's front five is figuring out what happens after the upcoming season.
It's probable LSU will lose all of its returning five starters — either to the NFL or expired eligibility — after the 2021 season, and the remaining 11 offensive linemen on the roster only have seven starts between them.
Developing the young talent and recruiting at an elite level will be crucial for Davis as he begins his tenure at LSU. Orgeron said the Tigers hosted three offensive line recruits over the weekend. Davis was already "recruiting a lot of them" at Arkansas, Orgeron said, and "he had great relationships."
Carr, now an inside linebackers coach at Neville High, said the school's five-star offensive tackle Will Campbell was among the recruits who visited Baton Rouge. Campbell, who committed to the Tigers in January, was also recruited by Davis while the coach was at Arkansas.
Those close to Davis expect him succeed. They know what that kid standing six rows up in the Belaire football team photo, on Page 111 of Veda, can do. They know how meaningful his return home is.
"I know what it means for our city," Moore said. "I know what it means for our kids, our children. I think a lot people in this city will be happy with what he has to offer."