Very rarely does a student get pulled out of class for good news.
For Will Davis, the mid-lesson interruption nearly five years ago brought word that his football career might be over before it really even started.
Today, Davis is the Dolphins’ rookie cornerback who is leaping up the depth chart after a series of big plays in practice and exhibition games. But in January of 2009, he was a man without a team.
That’s when Western Washington, the Division II school where Davis had a scholarship, decided to disband its football program. The news came while he was in class.
“It really tested if you really loved football or not, I’ll tell you that,” Davis said Sunday. “They told us they’d still honor our scholarships, so I thought, maybe I’ll stay. Maybe football’s not for me. I thought it might not be my path.”
As it turns out, it was just the beginning of a remarkable journey that would take Davis from Bellingham, Wash., to Cupertino, Calif., through Logan, Utah, to now, finally, South Florida.
Davis, who had played just one year of organized football by his 20th birthday, decided to stick with the game, no matter how long the odds once looked. He is glad he did.
The third-round pick in April’s draft is a lock to make the team. He has made too much of an impact to keep him off it. Davis had three interceptions in one practice earlier this month, and picked off Jacksonville’s Mike Kafka in Friday’s preseason victory.
Davis has been exactly the kind of game-changing athlete coach Joe Philbin covets for a defense largely bereft of playmakers in 2012.
On Sunday, Philbin wouldn’t rule out using Davis as the team’s nickel cornerback this fall, meaning he could potentially beat out high-priced veterans Dimitri Patterson or Richard Marshall for playing time.
“He showed better awareness on the field Friday night, no doubt about it,” Philbin said. “He made one big play there, got his hands on the ball.”
As for what Davis needs to show to win the job: “Consistency, awareness. Those [types] of things that sometimes only experience, when you throw him out there, can learn those things.”
He’s certainly on the right trajectory.
Davis didn’t even go out for the football team until his senior year at Central Valley High in Spokane, Wash. Before then, he was a track triple jumper and a guard on the basketball team. But he wanted to give football a try before he graduated, and excelled as a defensive back and receiver.
In-state Western Washington offered Davis a scholarship, but he would never see the field. He redshirted his freshman year, and then shortly after the season ended, word came that the program was going bust.
But he still had a free education, and at first decided to stay put. He returned to Western Washington for his sophomore year, but this time simply as a student.
Still, he had the itch to play. He knew the best way to get noticed was at a junior college, so he enrolled at De Anza College in California’s Bay Area. There, Davis was an instant star, picking off eight passes — most by any junior college player in the nation that year.
The gambit worked. The following fall, he was a backup for Utah State. Finally, he got his shot to start last fall, and blew up. Davis tallied five interceptions and 23 break-ups in 2012, good for third-team All-American honors.
“After I got it all down, it just clicked,” Davis said. “Senior year came, and there was no stopping me.”
That momentum has carried over to the NFL. Davis is currently the fourth or fifth corner on the depth chart, but he’s rising fast.
He has already surpassed Jamar Taylor, another rookie corner taken a round earlier than Davis last spring.
Taylor, recovering from sports hernia surgery, has missed the first two preseason games, although he was back on the field Sunday for the first time in more than a week.
Davis, meanwhile, has stayed healthy and — other than a defensive pass interference in the end zone in the Hall of Fame Game — largely productive.
During pre-practice stretches Sunday, Philbin made a point of walking over to Davis and sharing a few private words.
“He just told me, ‘Keep doing your thing out there,’ ” Davis said. “He said ‘You definitely played a lot better, but there are definitely things you have to work on.’ I feel the same way.”