Bulldogs Beat

UGA’s Jordan Davis proves growth against Vanderbilt — the same team that ignited his drive

Jordan Davis’ first media session quickly turned into a moment of reflection. Georgia’s burly nose tackle never thought he’d be a focal point at the beginning of his sophomore season, so his eyes occasionally wandered to take in Vanderbilt Stadium’s surroundings while standing in the end zone. Suddenly, Davis got a taste of what can be.

Georgia players fielded media inquiries in the Commodores’ end zone — it’s not the most common for interviews to be in public view. Rows and rows of Georgia fans standing in Section K sprawled behind them. Spectators stood with arms draped along a fence which barred reach from the playing field, and Davis received shouts of praise.

“Jordan Davis, that’s an SEC All-American, baby,” a fan yelled as a few celebratory hollers followed.

Davis paused. Nearly in a stunned state, he lifted an arm in approval toward the fan and released a grin.

“Man,” Davis muttered in the middle of a response. The fan’s sporadic act of support came during the question “Did you expect this to happen so quickly?”

The answer is no. A fairly firm no, in fact. Davis made his way from Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, as an overweight defensive line prospect. He lugged around 360 pounds to his frame, so Davis expected to take a redshirt year and develop. No resistance or doubt about that plan, because a chance to work alongside position Tray Scott — the first coach to offer him a scholarship while at North Carolina — in a low-profile role seemed to be in his favor.

Davis worked on scout team. Some hype followed as his teammates tossed around comments about a young player’s potential. Soon, those discussions became tangible and Davis pushed himself into playing time as a true freshman. Georgia had injuries among a then-depleted defensive line, and a taste of action became consistent by the season’s fourth game.

“I was overwhelmed and a little nervous,” Davis said. “I had to step up. This speed of the game is a lot different than high school, but I got acclimated quick.”

His moment came in the fifth game against Vanderbilt. Davis recorded a tackle for loss on a fourth-and-1 play by stuffing a Commodore playmaker for a change of possession. A jolt of confidence rushed through the inexperienced lineman, and Davis followed it with seven tackles at LSU. From then on, emergence as a defensive stalwart became increasingly tangible.

“All right, I can play with these boys,” Davis recalled thinking after Georgia beat Vanderbilt at Sanford Stadium. “I have to rise to the top. It’s about giving my best against each team.”

His surging season came to a halt prior to the Sugar Bowl due to a back injury. His weight, slightly trimmed down during the season, ballooned toward 350 pounds again and Davis had to reboot his conditioning methods. One motivation festered in his mind: his brothers along the defensive line.

Georgia has a host of upperclassman amongst its front, and Davis gives credit to those soon to depart. The likes of Michael Barnett, David Marshall, Tyler Clark and others became persistent in aiding Davis. In any area needed from specific technique to enhancing focus, those seniors ensured Davis maximized his abilities.

“They taught me everything I know,” Davis said. He mentioned a “1-2 punch” with Barnett as they share the duties at nose tackle. “I love those boys to death — every single one of them — and they love on me but coach me hard.”

Davis said he finds a specific area to improve in after each visit to the film room, so he spent extra time studying. He entered his second season with a rejuvenated mentality and a thinner frame. Davis came to Vanderbilt Saturday with a listed weight of 330 pounds and full health to complement it.

His presence is unmistakable for opposing lines who try to block Davis in full pursuit. He’s not a guy to rack up the tackle statistics, but Davis is always there. That’s similar to former Bulldog nose tackle John Atkins who clogged up the “A” and “B” gaps among the line of scrimmage to allow other defenders to work with ease. But when those opportunities for playmaking appear, they’re a big deal for Davis.

“The sky’s the limit for Jordan,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “He’s athletic, but Jordan has to work hard to keep his stamina up. People can negate him by going hurry-up and wear him down. He’s extremely physical, and a typical SEC D-lineman. I know he was hard to block.”

Two of Davis’ plays made the spotlight in Georgia’s 30-6 win over Vanderbilt. He nearly appeared on highlight tapes in the second quarter while making contact on a field-goal attempt from Commodore kicker Ryley Guay. Davis got middle push and deflected the kick as it began flight, and the big No. 99 bursted through with exuberance. Davis thought the block was his.

Then, Guay’s kick drifted through the uprights. While gold fireworks darted through the sky, Davis hands crashed atop his head in disbelief. Georgia works on that specific scenario in practice drills, and Davis anticipated execution.

“I was celebrating, then got disappointed because I heard everyone yelling,” Davis said. “I thought, ‘This is it, this is it,’ then ‘Aw man, almost had it.’ There are going to be plenty of opportunities, so hopefully I can grab one.”

A wave of deja vu for Davis occurred in the third quarter. He flew through a crease and fell upon Vanderbilt running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn for a four-yard loss. Davis’ second tackle-for-loss in two seasons against the Commodores allowed him to flex his muscles … and maybe show that linemen can run?

“He’s so deceivingly fast,” offensive guard Cade Mays said during the preseason. “He’s huge, he’s a fridge out there. But as fast as he is, it’s almost freakish.”

His teammates are thrilled each time Davis contributes, but it also makes them laugh. Because once the Bulldogs walk behind the stadium tunnels, Davis doesn’t show much aggressiveness inside the team locker room.

“It’s crazy watching him on the field, because he is so goofy,” inside linebacker Monty Rice said. “He’s like a little kid, but turns it on when he gets out here.”

Davis’ moment of reflection progresses toward reality. He’s no longer a young kid trying to find his place as a Bulldog. He has emerged as one of Georgia’s centerpieces.

Davis proved that Saturday, and can now believe in what can be.

“He’s a vital part of the defense,” Rice said. “We need Jordan Davis. He makes things a lot easier.”

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Brandon Sudge has covered Georgia athletics as a correspondent for The Telegraph since 2016. He focuses on telling the deeper story within football, basketball, gymnastics and other sports. You can follow Brandon on Twitter at @brandonsudge.