Alex Davis is something of a paradox. As a redshirt senior, he’s a grizzled veteran on a football team full of youth.
Davis is 23 years old now, but in terms of football experience, he’s younger than even some of the underclassmen on the roster.
Davis didn’t pick up organized football until his senior year of high school; he had been primarily a basketball player up until that point. He showed enough potential on the gridiron to earn a handful of scholarship offers and chose to commit to the Huskers.
Davis spent his first two years in Lincoln as a defensive end, redshirting his first season. He arrived as a 6-foot-5, 230-pound prospect and put on 25 pounds during his redshirt season so that he could hold his own better in the trenches.
Then Nebraska changed to a 3-4 defense, and Davis had to start over again, learning how to be a stand-up outside linebacker. Last season, he didn’t change positions but he did get a new coach and a new defense.
Davis has been playing catch-up his whole career, trying to learn on the fly amidst steady and consistent change. But he said that is no longer the case.
“I really feel like I’ve caught up,” Davis said. “It comes from watching a lot of film, watching a lot of people in my position, seeing how they do it. I do feel like I’m caught up and I do feel confident in everything I do out there. I’m not thinking, I’m just playing, just reacting.”
Davis has recorded just 24 tackles in 37 career games including just five tackles last season. He has just three tackles for loss and one-and-a-half sacks, all of which came during his sophomore season. His coaches have noticed a difference in his play this spring, however.
“I think he’s come a long, long ways,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “He’s got a ways to go but he’s come a long way. He’s made a lot of plays in camp, he’s become better at rushing the passer. I think he understands the game within the game a little bit. He understands what his job is. Last year I think he was too hesitant, he was like a deer in the headlights when some of the plays were happening right in front of him, but this year — right or wrong — he’s going in hard. I appreciate the effort he’s giving and the improvement he’s made.”
Coach Scott Forst used the word “urgency” to describe what he’s been seeing from Davis this spring.
“They call him Ace,” Frost said. “Alex was around the ball a lot last year and he had opportunities to make a lot of plays last year, got a lot of snaps, and sometimes the plays were there to be had and he just didn’t quite make them. Starting to see him make those plays this year in spring ball. We need him to be a player for us so hopefully he continues on the trajectory he’s on because he looks a lot different this spring than he did last fall, in a good way.”
Davis said he’s made strides both physically and mentally in order to do what Nebraska needs its outside linebackers to do.
“Mainly just dropping back in coverage and really just focusing on slimming down a little bit,” Davis said. “I felt like I was a little bit heavy. But it’s really just all about knowing what I’m capable of and really just working on moving in space. If you’re not used to dropping back, it’s just something else to learn, something new to learn. Just working on it all through my off time and I feel a lot better with it … I feel like I made a lot of big strides. I feel quicker, faster, stronger just in the mental aspect, just knowing my assignments and stuff. I just feel a lot more comfortable.”
Davis has gotten a lot of first team reps in practice this spring as the Huskers look to sort out a rotation. Whether by performance or by injury, Luke Gifford was the only consistent performer in that room last season, and now he’s gone. Davis, Tyrin Ferguson, JoJo Domann and Caleb Tannor all saw time at outside linebacker last season, and all of them are seeking to make a case for themselves this spring.
“The outside ‘backers have been putting in a lot of work in the offseason,” Davis said. “You can see the work in the offseason coming into right now. It’s crazy because we’ve got a long way to go and I feel like we can do it, we can accomplish it. I’ve got high expectations for us this year.”
Unfortunately, the outside linebackers have had to put in the work without having their coach alongside them every step of the way as Jovan Dewitt is battling throat cancer. Treatment has prevented him from coaching like he normally would, but Dewitt has still tried to make it to as many practices and meeting as he can.
“To see him to even try to come out and step up, that is amazing,” Davis said. “Going through something like what he’s going through, he doesn’t have to be here and everybody wouldn’t feel no type of way about it. But he’s showing his strength to come out there and give us a little bit of motivation. When you see that, you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. When you see somebody getting out of bed in his situation to come and watch us practicing, that’s amazing.”
Davis said Dewitt has been coaching from afar even when he hasn’t been there, however, reviewing film and sending in critiques.
Without their coach, the players are driving each other to improve on the practice field.
“I challenge the group everyday,” Davis said. “We challenge each other to come out and just do the best, whether it’s the pass rush, rerouting the receiver, getting them on the ground, just being physical. That’s it. All the ‘backers are just trying to out-do each other every play.”
After four years of trying to figure things out, it’s now or never for Alex Davis. Armed with a new sense of confidence and comfort int he system, the 6-foot-5 senior is looking to make the most out of his final season at Nebraska.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.