The NFL Draft process can be quite the rollercoaster, as California safety back Ashtyn Davis learned first-hand this spring.
Some experts viewed Davis as a borderline first-round talent. But an adductor injury had kept Davis from working out at the NFL Combine and the coronavirus pandemic led to Cal’s pro day being canceled, without Davis getting a chance to prove his health. And some prognosticators predicted Davis would not get drafted until the fourth or fifth round.
Going through the draft process was new for Davis. But having outsiders question his ability was not new.
“We talked about it, and he says, ‘People are doubting me,” said Mike Gipson, who coached Davis on the track team at Cal. “And we talked about, that’s what they shouldn’t do because they don’t know you like I know you. If they doubt you, you’re going to prove them wrong. And one thing he did say to me: ‘Regardless of what round I go in, somebody’s going to get a first-round guy.’”
That's what the New York Jets are banking on. They drafted Davis in the third round last week, opening the latest chapter in a remarkable journey. Davis was unrecruited out of high school, but walked on at Cal, became a starter and then one of the best defensive backs in the country.
His athleticism and versatility make him one of the most intriguing players in this year’s draft. It’s still unclear how he’ll fit in the Jets’ defense, but those who have known Davis since his days at Santa Cruz High School in Northern California — and have seen him overcome the odds repeatedly — are certain that he’ll find a way to make an impact with the Jets.
“The kid always seems to fight through non-belief or doubt or adversity,” said Erik Redding, athletic director at Santa Cruz where Davis graduated from in 2014. “He’s a quiet kid. But we just think, if he gets the opportunity … we don’t see him failing.”
Just six years ago it would have been almost impossible to imagine Davis being selected in the third round of the NFL Draft. He had a strong final two years at Santa Cruz, where he impressed as a running back, receiver and defensive back.
A lot of players get that extra bolt of energy, say Friday night when the lights come on," said Jesse Trumbull, Santa Cruz football coach. "But for Ashtyn, it was Monday when practice started, it was the Saturday morning lift, the morning after a game. You could tell from the very beginning that Ashtyn really loved football and was going to do whatever it took to keep playing at some level.”
But as much as he loved the game, college football coaches did not love him. He had zero interest and no offers from Division 1 programs. His plan was to go to the University of Redlands to play Division III football.
Davis joined the track team earlier in high school in the hopes of improving his football speed, but by the spring of his senior year it had quickly become his best sport. And it ended up being his best chance to keep his football career alive.
He won the Central Coast Section 110-meter high hurdles champion as a senior. And when he showed up at the California state meet, where he placed fifth in both the 110-meter high hurdles and 300-meter hurdles. It's also where he met Gipson for the first time.
Gipson had no intention of watching Davis run. He wasn't even on his radar.
“I actually went to recruit another guy and I knew nothing of Ashtyn,” Gipson said. “Nothing. And then, in the preliminary round he ran next to the guy that I was recruiting and ran step-for-step with him. So, I’m like, ‘Who’s that guy?’”
After the meet Gipson met up with Davis told him there was an opportunity for him to compete on the track at Cal. Davis received offers from several other schools, but liked the opportunity at Cal the best. But even as he committed Davis made it clear that he wasn’t giving up on his football dream.
Davis was eyeing a football career, but he still took his track extremely seriously. And as the years went b he looked for every way possible to improve his craft.
“It was funny, probably his first [couple] years of track, his go-to meal the night before a race was a pepperoni pizza and a milkshake,” Gipson said, laughing. “And we would joke about it. What did you eat last night? And he would say, ‘I have to. I have to.’”
Davis ended up being one of Cal’s biggest stars on the track, becoming a four-time All-American, a Pac-12 champion in the 110-meter hurdles and a third-place finisher at the NCAA Indoor Championship in the 60-meter hurdles.
For Gipson, everything about it was remarkable.
“He’s always been the overlooked guy,” Gipson said. “He’s fifth at the California state meet [in high school], but by the end of his track career, he’s third in the nation. Another time he qualified for the NCAA Indoor championships. They take 16. He was the 15th guy to qualify and then he ends up on the podium.
“So he’s always had that little bit of a — everybody uses the term, a ‘chip’ — but he’s always had that, ‘I’m going to show you. I barely got in, but I’m going to get on the podium.’”
Making it big
Davis’ ascension at Cal’s football program didn’t come as quickly, he didn’t suit up once in his first two years on campus — but it was no less impressive. He didn’t play football his first year on campus, 2014. In 2015, after repeatedly reaching out to the football staff for a tryout, he made the team as a walk-on but didn’t play.
In 2016, as a redshirt freshman, he started to make his impact: he played all 12 games and was named the team’s most valuable special teams player — an award he’d also win as a sophomore.
And in 2017, Davis quickly got the attention of new coach Justin Wilcox who quickly realized that Davis was deserving of that football scholarship he had been holding out for and made him an offer.
Before long, the All-American hurdler was a huge piece in the Bears’ secondary, starting 29 straight games until he was injured as a senior.
After starting his career as a cornerback, he proved switched to safety as a sophomore and became one of Pac-12’s best defensive backs and a big weapon as a kick returner.
“He’s spent as much time in the meeting room and watching video as anybody,” Wilcox said. “So you could see the year over year, or really month-to-month, week-to-week growth from him because he’s a very, very intelligent guy. He’s extremely smart and he retains information. You don’t have to tell him a whole bunch of times.
No one knows exactly how Davis will fit into the Jets defense or how they’ll use him. But those who have been watching over the years have zero doubt that he’ll find a way to make an impact.
And it doesn’t matter what the Jets ask him to do, major or minor, he’s going to embrace it.
“He’s not trying to say, oh I want to be the starting DB right now,” Redding said. “He’s like, ‘how do I make this team?’ He’ll get the playbook, he’ll be in it early, he’ll be one of those guys that’s first to the meeting, he’ll be the last guy that leaves.
“That’s the type of kid he is. And he’ll be the kid that asks questions. Until he gets the answer that he needs, he’s going to pick the coach’s brain. And that’s the type of person that he is. If you give him an opportunity and open a door for him, he’s just going to take it and go.”
And after the remarkable, unconventional road he’s taken to this point, there’s no reason that Davis can’t make another improbable leap and prove yet again that he belongs.
“He’s a stronger man than most,” Trumbull said. “To deal with not getting recruited, to have to fight through being a walk-on, to not be able to take a track scholarship because he still wanted to do football. All those steps, he was never deterred from his path. And I think it’s a testament to how strong of a man he is.”