'What's Wrong with NFL Draft Prospect Marcus Davenport?' Is the Wrong Question

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 10, 2018

UTSA defensive lineman Marcus Davenport is seen at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine on Sunday, March 4, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

There just has to be something wrong with Marcus Davenport

He looks like a cross between elite pass-rushers Calais Campbell and Von Miller on game tape. His workout results put even highly touted draft prospect Bradley Chubb of N.C. State to shame. But there's always a catch with these small-conference marvels who stomp through the opposition like Pacific Rim monsters.

Something must have scared away the power-conference schools. Bad grades? An attitude problem? A not-enough-of-an-attitude problem?

The NFL simply doesn't overlook a player like Davenport unless he's a mild-mannered late-bloomer who chose his hometown college over bigger programs becauseget thishe liked the players and environment there.

Top prospects like that were thought to be extinct, at least until Davenport came along.

The catch with Davenport may be that there isn't a catch. Could he be the Jadeveon Clowney-caliber prospect who slipped through the cracks, simply because he did not quite fit the mold?

   

On Display

It's the opening day of Senior Bowl week. Davenport is swarmed with reporters, and he's visibly uncomfortable with all of the attention.

"I think this is more than all my years combined," he says as he surveys the throng.

"I feel like we're on display," he adds. "I mean, it's a great honor, but it's also time-consuming and a little bit stressful. But it's cool overall."

All NFL prospects are "on display" at the Senior Bowl, of course. And they aren't supposed to let the stress show. But Davenport lacks the media-savvy veneer that comes from playing on national television every Saturday.

He played college football for the University of Texas at San Antonio, a program whose history only dates back to 2012. The Roadrunners are a Conference USA also-ran that has appeared in one bowl game. Media coverage during Davenport's college career consisted of trickles of reporters from small outlets and campus newspapers.

But NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah listed Davenport as the seventh player off the board in a late-January mock draft, placing him in the company of college superstars like Saquon Barkley and Baker Mayfield. Ready or not, Davenport was a sudden celebrity in draftnik circles.

Marcus Davenport at the Senior Bowl
Marcus Davenport at the Senior BowlButch Dill/Associated Press

The Senior Bowl and its week of highly attended practices are almost custom-made for small-school pass-rushers seeking to get noticed. Every year, some big dude with an unfamiliar helmet arrives yoked with muscle, wins a few pit drills against SEC left tackles before an audience of scouts/coaches/reporters and climbs up the draft boards.

But Davenport leapt to the top in a single bound before his first practice. Not surprisingly, he did his best to downplay the sudden attention.

"I like the idea of that," Davenport says of Jeremiah's seventh-overall prediction. "I like seeing it. But I haven't done anything yet. I know I'm not there. I'm blessed to even be here. It wasn't that long ago that this wasn't even a thought."

Davenport doesn't act the part of an elite pass-rush prospect. He speaks softly, pausing a beat before offering brief, precise answers to questions. At a position dominated by snarling, chest-thumping alphas, Davenport is chill.

Perhaps a little too chill.

In his first practices, Davenport looks unprepared to live up to his top-10 billing. Blockers from the big programs push him around in drills. He's a pass-rusher without a plan, expecting to win with his first step and his first move, then getting surprisedand stymiedwhen they fail. The quiet Davenport was having a quiet week, the kind that gets small-school projects mid-round grades from personnel evaluators concerned that they may lack both the moves and the motor.

But the game itself was a different story. Davenport's Senior Bowl highlights look just as dominating as his UTSA tape. He sacks Baker Mayfield early in the game. He hurries Tanner Lee into throwing an interception late. In between, he gobbles up a fumble and races for a touchdown. It's a dominating performance.

Not that you can tell by Davenport's on-field demeanor. He celebrates that nationally televised all-star game touchdown by walking calmly out of the end zone and accepting a few slaps on the helmet from teammates along the way.

In that game, Davenport proved that he could thrive against big-time competition, so cross that concern off his scouting report. But perfect pass-rush prospects just don't spring out of unheralded programs. There's just got to be something wrong.

     

The Homegrown Kid

Darryl Hemphill, Davenport's head coach at John Paul Stevens High School in San Antonio and a former NFL defensive back, isn't surprised he's asked about whether Davenport's grades prevented him from going to a high-profile college program.

"That question gets asked a lot, simply because people wonder why he didn't go to a bigger school," Hemphill says.

But the NFL can cross bad grades or classroom habits off the checklist as it tries to figure out what's wrong with Davenport.

"Teachers loved him. He was a leader by example in the classroom. School wasn't the problem," Hemphill says. "His size was the problem."

Hemphill first used Davenport at wide receiver, posting the long, lean freshman up against 5'10" defensive backs.

Reports of Davenport's pass-catching skills vary. "They're the best," Davenport says about his hands, with a wide grin. But former Stevens High offensive coordinator Conrad Hernandez remembers that "there was a 50-50 chance whether Davenport would catch it or drop it."

"We didn't throw him the ball enough to be consistent," Hemphill says diplomatically.

For whatever reason, Davenport moved over to defensive end.

"He realized really quick that it was his calling," Hernandez says.

Davenport began drawing double- and triple-team blocks as a defender. He also was a threat to block every punt and field goal, and he still ran some jump-ball routes near the goal line on offense.

After football season, Davenport became a rebounding, shot-blocking enforcer at center for the basketball team. After basketball season, he ran the 100- and 200-meter sprints and threw discus and shot put for the track team. He took part in so many events that Hernandez remembers Davenport having to run from the track to the throwing area to fit them all in.

Davenport was busy competing in so many sports that he only had time for intensive football weight training in the summer. By his senior year, he was 6'5" but weighed just 198 pounds. "He was skinny as a rail," Hernandez says. "He had a little definition on him, but not like what you see on him today."

According to Hemphill, major program recruiters raved about Davenport's athleticism and his hustle, then explained that they were only interested in 240-pounders at defensive end.

"I can't wave a wand and add 35 pounds tomorrow," Hemphill told the recruiters. "So, see you guys later."

Davenport still received offers from New Mexico and UNLV. Yet he chose the closer to home, much less established UTSA program instead.

Marcus Davenport makes a tackle against Texas A&M.
Marcus Davenport makes a tackle against Texas A&M.Sam Craft/Associated Press

"UTSA wasn't necessarily my first choice," Davenport says, "I don't think I was their first choice, either. I was kind of mad that they didn't recruit me. I'm from their hometown."

Hemphill said that UTSA did not express interest in Davenport until the final days of the recruiting cycle. But Davenport agreed to visit the school.

"I went there and met my teammates, and I fell in love like that," Davenport says. "I wanted to be a part of that family."

UTSA had aggressively recruited the San Antonio high schools to get its program off the ground. Its roster was like an all-star team of Davenport's high school conference.

"It was mainly guys I had played against," Davenport says. "And then some dudes who I had seen as big-time, but they actually acted like humans, like people. They were guys I really looked up to. And they accepted me as family."

"UTSA showed him a family structure and environment," says UTSA head coach Frank Wilson, who arrived when Davenport was a junior. "That was ideal for him because of his family values. It fit. He realized he wasn't a commodity here."

The hometown school turned out to be the perfect match for Davenport.

"He's a very homegrown kid," Hemphill says.

Davenport thrived in the weight room and grew to a chiseled 264 pounds. Wilson credits UTSA's strength and conditioning program. Davenport agrees, but also credits a "see food, eat food" diet. "Anytime I had to think about food, I ate," he says. "So I would get one meal for now and one meal for later, and end up eating them both now."

Davenport also thrived in the classroom, completing a grueling 18-credit semester while playing his senior year so he could graduate on time.

There are about a dozen late-bloomer stories like this in every draft class—the multi-sport athlete who chose an offseason of track over specialized football camps, whose growth spurt (or weight gain) came late, who opted for the familiar surroundings of the local program over the lukewarm interest of bigger schools. One of those late-bloomers become Carson Wentz. Others fill out the bottoms of rosters, if they make the NFL at all.

The difference between those two categories is as much a matter of desire as ability, which brings NFL evaluators back to Davenport's mild-mannered demeanor.

Could Davenport actually be too homegrown, too humble and too innocent for the NFL?

     

The Innocent Approach

NFL teams like to try to throw prospects off their games with weird questions during combine interviews. One team asked Davenport what kind of fruit he would like to be. Davenport didn't flinch.

"I said an apple," he reveals.

So why would Davenport want to be an apple?

"Hey, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. I have to be healthy."

It takes a little coaxing to pry loose Davenport's dad-joke sense of humor. It takes a little coaxing to pry just about anything from Davenport.

"Marcus is never going to let you know what makes him tick," Hernandez warns. "At times, it's frustrating for a coach. Because you want to get a feel for what he's thinking, or find a pulse."

NFL teams are clearly rooting around for Davenport's pulse.

Marcus Davenport works out at the NFL combine.
Marcus Davenport works out at the NFL combine.Michael Conroy/Associated Press/Associated Press

Buccaneers GM Jason Licht holds the seventh pick in the draftthe pick Jeremiah connected to Davenport in his January mock draftand he desperately needs an edge-rusher. Licht spoke about Davenport at the scouting combine.

"He's raw, but he's explosive, strong and plays hard," Licht says. "I like the fact that he's raw, because there's big upside with him."

But Licht warns against getting infatuated with unknown pass-rushers with gaudy sack totals and workout results. "We have time here to see where their mind is, see whether there's a desire, a passion to want to get better."

Davenport's former coaches never question his desire. Quite the opposite.

"What people could never figure out about Marcus was the intrinsic motivation that he has," Hernandez says.

But they all agree that Davenport expresses that desire differently than your typical marauding defender or campus superstar. It starts with those on-field celebrations, or lack thereof. Davenport's former coaches recognized his another-day-at-the-office reactions to his sizzle-reel Senior Bowl plays.

"Marcus would make a great play, and that's just what he did," Hernandez says. "He didn't have to scream or yell. Maybe a high five at most. But his mentality was: OK, I'm gonna go do it again."

"He is not a guy who is caught up in the 'fluff' or the show," Wilson says.

That lack of fluff can sometimes look like a lack of energy, especially when Davenport acts more like Bruce Banner off the field than the Hulk teams are looking for.

"He's a thinker," Hemphill says. "He's processing everything that you say to him. But once he processes it, he's a go-getter."

"He's sincere," Wilson says. "And innocent. He has a thirst for knowledge."

Innocent is not an adjective which shows up on your typical college scouting report, particularly of a prospect expected to disrupt offenses and terrorize quarterbacks. But it characterizes the quiet young man who was bemused by the Senior Bowl buzz, the one who would rather play football with the guys he looked up to in high school than get lost in a power-conference shuffle, the one who barely acknowledges his own sacks and touchdowns.

According to Hernandez, Davenport still rode the school bus home as a senior. Three-sport varsity seniors haven't ridden school buses home since the 1950s. If they don't drive, they have plenty of friends who do. But Davenport did.

"He would get on the bus with freshmen and sophomoresand he's a foot taller than anyone else in there just smiling," Hernandez says. "That's who he was. That was his attitude."

"He's not entitled," Wilson says. "He doesn't have it all figured out. He's that kid that says, 'Coach me, Coach!' He's innocent in his approach, but very deliberate in his attack."

Innocent, humble and deliberate are descriptions that can easily be twisted in the echo chamber of pre-draft chatter. He rode the school bus almost sounds like coded anonymous-scout character subversion. But former coaches insist that Davenport was a quiet leader by example who just happens to shrug off the trappings of success.

"The National Football League is not a nurturing environment," Wilson says. "But he's a big boy now. He's beyond that."

There goes one more thing that isn't wrong with Davenport.

     

Learn to Be Feared

Davenport reflected on his Senior Bowl experience a month later at the scouting combine in late February.

"The Senior Bowl was kind of a whirlwind for me," he admits. "I came in there expecting something different and totally got turned around."

Davenport said that facing All-America competition for the first time helped in the usual ways: getting used to bigger, stronger blockers and so on. "But I also found that I have to find it in myself first."

"I was trying to play to them and to what I thought critics would care to see. But it got to a certain point where I just had to play my game."

Davenport is at his most effective when he remembers to be Davenport. But sometimes that takes time.

Hemphill says that Davenport was so humble in high school that coaches had to "teach him how to be feared." Davenport would get discouraged when opponents ran play after play to the opposite side of the field. His coaches reminded him that he was being avoided out of respect and was impacting the game without making a single tackle.

"He computed that, and then he realized that he was an impact player on every down," Hemphill said. "Once he realized that, he loved the game of football."

Something similar happened at UTSA. In Davenport, Wilson inherited a still-scrawny defender who could fly all over the field, so Wilson played him as a 3-4 outside linebacker who dropped into coverage as often as he rushed the passer.

"In his junior year, we just had an athletic body that could kinda flounder out there," Wilson says.

Marcus Davenport demonstrates his raw strength.
Marcus Davenport demonstrates his raw strength.Michael Hickey/Getty Images

But then Davenport "became a man who wanted to excel," according to Wilson. He began mastering his technique and learning more about offensive sets. And he got used to his bulked-up frame and what he could do with it.

"I feel like with strength, I was able to develop violence," Davenport says. "At first I was light, so I just had to use speed and finesse."

Wilson scrapped the stand-up linebacker role and began sliding Davenport all over the formation to confuse pass protectors. "We said, 'Screw this, he's the best pass-rusher in America. Let him go!'"

Davenport has been going ever since, give or take a few brief moments in Mobile at the Senior Bowl when he tried to be something he is not.

At the combine, Davenport answered every question any team could have about his athleticism. He ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash. That was faster than college superstar and top-rated edge-rusher Bradley Chubb (Davenport and Chubb wagered $50 on the outcome) and close to the 4.53-second time which helped solidify Jadeveon Clowney's status as the top pick in the draft four years ago. Davenport's other workout results were nearly identical to Clowney's.

Davenport's athleticism is close to unparalleled. His production is eye-popping. His character is, if anything, a little too exemplary.

The only thing that's left for the NFL to figure out is that there is nothing to figure out. Sometimes, outstanding prospects slip through the cracks, especially ones who bloom a little late and go out of their way to avoid attention.

Davenport knows why NFL teams are probing his psyche and his background.

"They are looking for my love of the game," he says, "to see if I can go from calm and mild-mannered to aggressive. I like to think I'm a calm person with a violent side on the field. Jekyll and Hyde. But I'm just trying to be myself."

Being himself has led to misconceptions and labels. Characteristically, Davenport doesn't have much to say to those who assume that he's too quiet, too soft or too much of a small-school project.

"I just laugh at it all," he says. "People just have to see for themselves."

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