The former top linebacker recruit from Santa Ana Mater Dei did his best to keep a smile on his face, to roll with the punches, to shake off the fact he hadn’t seen a single defensive snap since early September. But with his redshirt burned and his development all but stunted, Davis, like so many of the Trojans’ other top freshmen, was left directionless by season’s end, desperate for a new staff to point him the right way.
That new path finally seemed to present itself over the past week, culminating in a major breakthrough moment Thursday for the young linebacker, as Davis was “gold-plated”, earning his Trojan helmet decal for his improving effort this spring. The new honor came courtesy of Heisman-winning quarterback Matt Leinart, who also went to Mater Dei.
“Just to be able to get it and wear it, just to be able to earn it I feel like I’ve done a great job putting all my effort into earning this,” Davis said. “That was the main thing I was working towards just all of spring ball.”
That effort hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially after Davis’ slow start to spring prompted questions from USC coaches about his maturity. Just two weeks ago, inside linebackers coach Brian Odom didn’t mince words in discussing how Davis still needed to learn “what it takes to be a high-level Division 1 athlete.”
Since that challenge was issued, the progress has been palpable. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and inside linebackers coach Brian Odom both complimented Davis’ effort in recent weeks, while coach Lincoln Riley noted that he was “starting to grow up”.
“It’s very evident he brings effort on each play, and that’s given him a real shot to make a difference,” Odom said.
There are still plenty of obstacles to overcome before Davis can seriously challenge the two inside linebackers currently leading USC’s defense, Shane Lee and Ralen Goforth, who Odom said had “separated themselves” atop the position group. The first being the playbook, which Davis admits gave him trouble as a freshman.
His weight has been another hindrance. At one point last season, Davis was down to just 207 pounds. He’s up to 220 already this spring, with hopes of getting to 225. Even then, he’d still be among the smallest linebackers on USC’s roster.
“Our main focus is guys that can run, but when you’re really underweight, you’ve got no shot,” Odom said. “We’ve got to get to a certain point where he can withstand blocks and be able to get off blocks.”
USC’s coaches are confident that point will come. But the more important progress has come in with his preparation, much of which Davis says he’s learned from Lee, the Alabama transfer.
“Ever since he just stepped on this campus, it’s been a huge change for me,” Davis said. “It’s just all about effort now — that’s all it is.”
That lesson, thankfully for Davis, took only a few weeks to learn.
USC finally got a first glimpse of its top freshman prospect, as former five-star cornerback Domani Jackson debuted in a limited fashion on Thursday, seven months after a knee injury ended his senior season at Mater Dei prematurely.
Jackson remains limited and could stay that way the rest of spring as USC slowly integrates him into the secondary. But his appearance on Thursday was nonetheless a positive sign for a secondary that’s desperate for depth as it endeavors to replace four of five starters.
“Any work for him right now as a young guy is good,” Grinch said.
Most of that work has been limited to mental reps thus far. But for Jackson, that’s where most of his progress must come this spring and summer, if he plans to earn a role in USC’s remade secondary.
“He runs a 10.2 [100-meter dash], he bench presses 225 like 16 times and probably verts 40 [inches], so yeah, athletically, he has all the expectations in the world,” cornerbacks coach Donte Williams said. “But the whole thing here is to grow mentally.”