Late in the first quarter of LSU’s win over Texas A&M in November, Drake Davis raced downfield on the kickoff coverage team, sought the Aggies returner and corralled him for the first tackle of his college career.
Davis wasn’t supposed to make that tackle, because he wasn’t supposed to be on that kickoff coverage team.
“I snuck on the field,” he laughed.
Davis, an athletic sophomore originally from Baton Rouge, won’t have to sneak onto the field this season. Nearly three weeks into preseason camp, he’s LSU’s leading kickoff returner, ready to slide into the role held last year by the electric Derrius Guice and the speedy Donte Jackson.
Last year, Davis sneaked onto that coverage team against A&M, replacing defensive back Dwayne Thomas — at Thomas’ request, he said.
“Dwayne. Older guy, old dude,” Davis said, chuckling. “He played a lot that game. He was like, ‘I need you to go (in) for me.’ ”
“When they break the huddle,” Thomas told Davis, “run out on the field and take my spot.”
He followed Thomas’ instructions, unbeknownst to then-special teams coach Bradley Dale Peveto.
“I made a tackle,” Davis laughed.
Now he’ll be trying to avoid those — on special teams and on offense.
Davis, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound specimen, is battling to stay in a significant position in the pecking order at one of the least experienced spots on the team: wide receiver.
They know they’re an inexperienced group, Davis said. They are aware that, when excluding senior D.J. Chark, they have all of 10 career catches among them. They know, too, that none of them, aside from Chark, has caught more than one touchdown pass.
They know, they know, they know.
“We only have two guys who have been in a game-type situation,” Davis said Thursday during his first meeting with local reporters since arriving at LSU last August. “We’ve got to earn respect.”
Beer and wine are coming to the top reaches of Tiger Stadium.
Chark and senior Russell Gage are the two receivers who have seen significant game action, but Gage has caught all of five passes for his career. Those two join Franklinton third-year sophomore Derrick Dillon as the players who have “separated themselves," coach Ed Orgeron said last week.
Davis and sophomore Stephen Sullivan aren’t far behind, though. That said, Davis’ position on the depth chart has dipped during camp. Orgeron mentioned him as one of his top three receivers before drills started July 31.
What happened? During interviews Thursday, he revealed he has not yet learned all of LSU’s receiver positions — something that other players, he said, have done. Davis is restricted to playing just one of the three receiver positions ("X," "Z" and "F"). He has only learned the "X."
Guys like Gage, Dillon and Chark are playing all three in a rotating role. The "Z" and "F" are more complicated because those players are asked to shift and motion before the snap.
“I was surprised how fast and quickly those guys learned that stuff. It’s (taking) me a whole lot longer,” said Davis, who recently changed his number from 25 to 14 in honor of former LSU star Jarvis Landry. “ 'F' and 'Z' and even 'Y' (tight end), there’s a lot of shifts. You’d have to know a lot of things in order to do those three positions."
“Every night, I try to study it as much as I can, so I don’t go out there and mess up or have any distractions,” Davis said later. “I try to study as much as I can.”
The Tigers need him. They need anybody. Receivers have perhaps the most trying job in new coordinator Matt Canada’s offense — physically and mentally, with presnap shifting, motions and route adjustments.
The lineup is not comforting. Behind Chark, Gage is a converted defensive back who played his first year at receiver last season. A redshirt in 2015, Dillon didn’t have a catch last season, and Dee Anderson (four catches), Davis (one) and Sullivan (none) combined for five during their true freshman year of 2016.
“I think Russell is the most consistent that I’ve seen, but Derrick has been stepping up and making plays consistently as well,” said Chark, the old man of the group. “Then you have the guys on the outside. Drake has been making big plays. It’s kind of hard to single out. I feel like Stephen doesn’t get (enough) credit because we’ve got a lot of guys out there, but he’s out on the practice field making plays as well. The list goes on.”
They call themselves the Bs. Or the Bucks.
Of the group, Davis is one of the more highly recruited players, a kid whom teammates described as a “freak” upon his arrival last summer. But the game is still somewhat new to him. He attended four high schools and didn’t play football as a junior, focusing on soccer before being pulled back into the game as a senior at IMG Academy.
He played soccer at a high level, participating in matches in Italy, England and Germany while staying with friends and family. So why did he return to football?
"I thought to myself, 'This could pay for my education and make me a better person,' " Davis said. "I chose football."
Before IMG, he made stops at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, St. Stanislaus in Mississippi and The Dunham School in Baton Rouge, his hometown.
“Drake Davis is a premier athlete and is one day going to be a great player,” Orgeron said last week. “Didn’t play football most of his life, so he’s just learning the game. As soon as he learns it, he’s got a chance to be very, very good.”
The issues, Davis admits, aren’t all mental.
The physicality of football is something he has had to learn. He has been moving away from “being a finesse guy,” he said, trying to use his body on the field more than ever.
He’ll need that on kickoff returns, too. For now, he and two true freshmen — running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and defensive back Jontre Kirklin — are returning kicks, and Dillon is believed to be working at punt return. Coaches are moving away from using players who have significant roles on defense or offense, like Jackson and Guice.
There’s less learning at kick returner than at receiver, of course. That’s a good thing, said a smiling Davis.
“Hold onto the ball and take it for a touchdown,” he said.
Eric Martin, in 1981, was the last LSU player to return a kickoff for a touchdown in Tiger Stadium. His 100-yard return sparked the Tigers to a 24-10 win over Kentucky.
Maybe, just maybe, Davis could be the next. After all, he took his first touch of the football as a senior at IMG for a 96-yard touchdown on a kick return.
“You can’t be scared," he said, describing the role of a returner. "It’s always the fastest guys (on kickoff coverage), so they’re coming for you. Once you see a hole, you can’t tiptoe through it. Hit it, and hopefully it breaks."
LSU returns half or less of its catches, yards and touchdowns by receivers from a year ago:
Total in 2016