IOWA CITY — Carl Davis once was deemed too large to play football. This was during his youth league days, when he was somewhere near 225 pounds in the fourth grade.
It all could’ve ended there. Davis absolutely loved basketball and still to this day considers himself quite the “point-center.” He played in AAU during his prep days in Detroit. The pickup games at his house on the westside began in the morning, went to noon and ended at night. He said his neighbors hated him.
“Everybody came to my house to play basketball,” Davis said. “I had the only basketball hoop on my block. The backyard I used to have, everyone was prone to a sprained ankle. There were cracks everywhere. When you’re a kid, you don’t care.
“Everyone came over to my house. I’d come home from school and we’d pull up in the driveway and there are 10 or 15 guys in my backyard and we’re playing basketball. We played until the sun went down. We had a back porch light that we’d put on. We’d play until it was dark.”
As light on his feet as he was — and remains — Davis could see where his body was headed. Even though he was too big for the game, he knew he was headed to football.
And here he is, a 6-5, 315-pound defensive tackle a the University of Iowa. Davis was always the good-looking defensive tackle body for the Hawkeyes, but he just couldn’t put together the endurance and avoid injury until last season. Davis was a second-team all-Big Ten pick by league coaches.
Davis is talkative, quick to laugh and smile. He puts a gregarious face on what is an incredibly physical, demanding job. An inside defensive lineman is one of the game’s dirtiest, ugliest, grittiest jobs.
“His job entails a lot of things,” defensive line coach Reese Morgan said. “His job is to react to the blocking scheme or the reaction of the offensive man. Whether he is a tilted 1 technique or a 3 technique on the outside shoulder of the guard, he has certain things he has to react to. But in run and pass downs, if you’re an inside guy, you’re probably going to get double-teamed a great deal of the time. If they’re going to run an inside zone play, both guys are going to get double-teamed.”
As you can imagine, the Hawkeyes asked to do this job need to come with the essential genetics (they need to be big or big enough). They need everything they can get from strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle’s programs. It’s a process of hardening that tests the body mentally and physically.
When Davis looks back at the 340-pounder who started at the UI in 2010, he laughs.
“Man, I had a chubby face and I didn’t have any facial hair at all,” Davis said with a laugh when asked about old pictures. “Chubby face and I was big. I didn’t notice at the time. I thought I was good until I almost passed out [during conditioning drills early in his career].”
Davis attended three high schools in the Detroit area, starting at Annapolis High School in Dearborn and then to Hazel Park before finally settling at Sterling Heights Stevenson. He had offers from all over the midwest, including Wisconsin and Michigan State, but picked Iowa. It didn’t hurt that his uncle Rich Walker was a longtime assistant basketball coach for the Hawkeyes.
When Davis joined Iowa that freshman year in 2010, the Hawkeyes D-line was in the middle of a golden era of sorts. Iowa’s leaders in tackles for loss that year were D-linemen Karl Klug, Mike Daniels, Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard. Three of the four are still in the NFL.
This was the age of toughening for Davis. You step onto the field as a 340-pound true freshman, you’re going to have conditioning tests.
“I’m dying, I’m missing times [in conditioning tests],” Davis said. “Coach [Iowa D-line coach at the time was Rick Kaczenski] is on me. Everybody is yelling at me. It’s bad when you’ve got the Clayborns talking to you, saying, ‘C’mon, let’s go.’
“I’m like, man, I’ve got to get it together, man. I finally did that.”
Davis pointed to Daniels as a specific mentor. Daniels went from a high school fullback/defensive tackle with an offer from Villanova to all-Big Ten at Iowa and now a leader as a DT on the Green Bay Packers defense.
“He kind of treats me like his son, tries to keep me humble,” said Davis, who keeps in contact with Daniels. “He says, ‘Carl, you haven’t done anything.’ And I say, ‘Mike, I never said I did.’ That’s just how he is. I love talking to him, we have a great time.”
There also was the push from Kaczenski, who now coaches D-line at Nebraska. That push was constant and, Davis said, in his opinion, not always constructive.
“Man, coach K, he knew how to get under my skin. He knew how to get under a lot of people’s skin,” Davis said. “You know, sometimes it was for the good. Sometimes, it was for the ... the worse. I’m just glad I didn’t give it up. A lot of guys didn’t make it through that. It was tough. It was to the point where every play in practice, I knew I did something wrong. I would do a rep and just turnaround and wait for him to go off on me.”
For the last two-plus seasons, Morgan has been Davis’ position coach. He credited Morgan for turning around the D-line last season. Iowa went from seventh in the Big Ten in rush defense in 2012 (162.8 yards a game) to fourth (128.38 yards a game). The D-line became a huge positive factor.
“We have a lot of work to do still, but coach Morgan, he’s a teacher,” Davis said. “He encourages us to make those plays. He gets on us a little bit, but it’s for the right reasons. I love playing for him and so does the rest of our defensive line.”
Carl Davis got it together. As you can see, he had a ton of help, but Carl Davis finally got it together.
So much so in 2013 that head coach Kirk Ferentz was asked if Davis approached last winter the NFL draft advisory board for a draft grade, something players who want to skip a year of college. Davis didn’t do that. Ferentz said he believed he wouldn’t have been a first-rounder. This year? Ferentz isn’t capping the possibilities.
“Two years ago, he didn’t know his potential,” Ferentz said. “Last year, he started figuring it out and this last spring, I think he really started enjoying the fact that, ‘Hey, maybe I am pretty good.’ I think he’s starting to get that and not in an ego way or a braggadocios way, but like, ‘Hey, this might be fun if I keep pushing for it.’”
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