Syracuse freshman rapidly maturing
MORGANTOWN - The second play Syracuse linebacker Dyshawn Davis saw against Rutgers was the one he was preparing for most.
It was a simple second-and-10 play early in the first quarter in the Oct. 1 game inside Syracuse's Carrier Dome. The Rutgers tight end moved from the right side of the line of scrimmage to the left. The wide receiver on the left side motioned toward the tight end.
"We ran through that play so many times during the week of practice," Davis said. "We kind of knew the call and we had the play locked down."
Davis saw everything happening in front of him as he'd expected. As soon as that receiver made his move, Davis countered with his. On that play, Davis was blitzing through the middle. His timing was perfect. All that was left was the hit.
"Watching so much film, I knew the angle I had to take to hit the hole without anyone touching me," he said.
"Once the guard pulled, I knew I was going to have a chance to make a play. I knew it was coming and then I was in the backfield one-on-one with the running back."
Davis was slicing through the line of scrimmage as the ball was snapped and the right guard moved left. He nearly took the handoff from the Rutgers quarterback and ran into the running back before he could get the ball. Cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson scooped it up and ran 65 yards for a touchdown.
"They say how you play is all about how you practice," Davis said. "Everything fell into place, but I was shocked at the fumble. That didn't happen in practice. I didn't even know we had the ball until I saw everyone running."
Davis (his first name is pronounced DIE-shawn) has 10 tackles, 4 1/2 tackles for a loss, two sacks and the forced fumble in the past two games. The Orange (4-2, 0-1 Big East) hope for more when they host No. 11 West Virginia (5-1, 1-0) at 8 p.m. Friday on ESPN.
Syracuse has been getting more from Davis by actually asking less. Starting as a true freshman, Davis was taken out of the team's nickel pass defense package after four games. The Orange were crushed by injuries in the preseason and Davis had been asked to play in all of the defensive packages.
"We try to get our best players on the field, but it becomes difficult," Coach Doug Marrone said.
"I guess I can't talk about every freshman, but in my position, all the freshmen I've coached, it puts pressure and all those things on that player. What we wanted to do is cut back the nickel package so he could focus on our base defense.
"We've gotten more production out of Dyshawn now and he feels comfortable with the base. Now we feed him the nickel package. He's just maturing into that position.
"I wouldn't be surprised if by the end of the year, or through the year, you see situations when he's on the field playing more."
Davis has the challenge of not only starting at linebacker as a freshman, but playing the position for the first time. Davis was an all-conference receiver in high school in Woodbury, N.J.
He had 199 receptions for 1,400 yards in his career and as a senior caught 80 passes for 800 yards and seven scores.
He had just one Football Bowl Subdivision offer and he was disappointed it wasn't from Rutgers. He committed to the Orange, but ended up at Milford Academy, a prep school in Connecticut that has about two-dozen former players in the NFL. It's an isolated place without many distractions nearby and Davis handled his academics as well as football, though that came with an obstacle along the way.
"I was recruited to Syracuse to play wide receiver and I went to Milford to play receiver, but after a couple practices they switched me to defense," he said. "I was pretty ticked off about it, to be honest. I didn't want to play defense and I knew my heart was on offense."
He didn't have a choice, so he became a safety and actually starred on Milford's nickel package. He finished with 35 tackles, 13 1/2 tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, four pass breakups, three fumble recoveries and three defensive touchdowns. Twice he was named the defensive player of the game.
Davis enrolled at Syracuse in January and was ready for spring football. One day, John Anselmo, the assistant head coach who works with linebackers, pulled Davis aside. Anselmo, who was Nassau Community College's head coach when Jason Gwaltney arrived from WVU, wanted Davis as a linebacker.
Davis was unsure, but had learned at Milford to trust his coaches.
"I didn't even know how to get in a linebacker stance, I didn't know how to take on blocks or linemen, I had none of the concepts of the position," he said. "Everything was different, but I stuck with it and my coaches and believed in them."
He had eight tackles and a sack in his first game and has helped the Orange rebuild the linebacker position after losing 2010's top tacklers - Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue - to graduation. Hogue had 10 tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for a loss, half a sack and two interceptions against WVU last season. Davis plays the same weak side position.
"They lost two all-conference guys last year who were really good, but the freshman kid, No. 35, has got some big-play potential to him," WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They blitz him a bunch and he makes a bunch of plays."