It was only a few years ago, Marcus Davenport said, that he wasn’t even the first choice of University of Texas San Antonio, a Conference USA team in its early infancy that had yet to produce an NFL draft pick.
Now, Davenport is poised to be the first choice in April of an NFL club hoping to find the league’s next great pass rusher.
Marcus Davenport just wants NFL teams to find him interesting.
That was the message the UTSA pass rusher conveyed to open Senior Bowl week, when the All-star game’s executive director — former NFL GM Phil Savage — said the nearly 6-foot-6, 259-pound edge rusher would be the prospect “everyone is talking about” by week’s end.
Roughly 12 months earlier, Davenport wasn’t even the Roadrunner his coaching staff was gushing over.
“When we got there, he was, I don’t know, somewhere between 207 and 212 [pounds]," UTSA head coach Frank Wilson said. "Scrawny guy that had some athletic ability. He was OK. But we didn’t think a whole bunch of him initially just watching the film of him the year previously.”
The year prior was 2015, Davenport’s true sophomore season, UTSA’s fourth year in existence and its final one led by original head coach Larry Coker. Davenport earned All-Conference USA honorable mention, with four sacks and 7½ tackles for loss, but his body and game remained underdeveloped.
“First year we come in and pack some pounds on him. He does better, gets a little injured,” Wilson said of Davenport’s junior season, when his 68 tackles (10 TFL) and 6½ sacks paced the defense en route to six wins and the school’s first Bowl appearance.
Enter strength and conditioning coach Bo Davis, formerly of Alabama. With Davis' work, a tough-love approach by Wilson and Davenport’s buy-in — soon a star was born.
“See food, eat food,” Davenport said of his weight gain in the offseason between his junior and senior years. “Anytime I had to think about food, I actually went and ate. So I’d get one meal for now and one meal for later and end up eating them both.”
Wilson credits Davis for helping Davenport “visualize what he can be” and recalls his own “giving it to him” on the sidelines during his senior season helping a now-260-pound Davenport begin to realize his vast potential.
“It was almost surreal to him at times — like, if you say it, then I’ll believe it — and not even knowing how dominant of a player that he was," Wilson said. “He just bought in and began to use the things that he had been trained to do from a physical standpoint, development and then weight room, and then mentally conditioning himself and convincing himself to be a dominant player.
"And he began to reap the benefits of it. And we did too as a university, as a team.”
The 2017 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year’s high-school defensive coordinator, Darryl Hemphill, recalled Davenport as a “6-3, 195-pound diamond in the rough.”
“A lot of special in him," Hemphill said. “Didn’t know there would be this much.”
Long before he became a first-round edge-rushing prospect reminding some of former top-10 picks Ezekiel Ansah and Barkevious Mingo, Davenport was a freshman wideout reluctant to switch from catching passes to chasing quarterbacks.
“He wasn’t real happy at first,” said Hemphill of Davenport's switch at Stevens High in San Antonio. “But [he was] so coachable. [We] saw the immediate transformation as a sophomore.”
That transformation, Hemphill said, wouldn’t have been possible without Davenport’s drive. Being tall was an asset as a receiver; as a pass rusher, he had to learn how to get under an offensive lineman’s pads. That lesson came from his coaches, but also Davenport’s time working alone with just a stand-up tackling dummy before practice.
“Got his first sack, and I just said there’s more coming,” Hemphill said. “That was his junior year, and there’s going to be more coming.”
Indeed, the production steadily increased, culminating in Davenport earning second-team All-District honors as a junior and first-team as a senior. Still, he wasn’t a highly coveted recruit and committed early to New Mexico prior to opting instead to remain home and play for Coker at UTSA.
“UTSA wasn’t necessarily my first choice," Davenport said. "I don’t think I was their first choice either. But I went there and met my teammates and fell in love. I wanted to be a part of their family.”
On the cusp of NFL stardom, Davenport’s San Antonio roots and his family is critical to his success.
Davenport’s hope that NFL teams interviewing him in Mobile found him interesting had little to do with his football skills and everything to do with his soft-spoken and unassuming personality. It traces back to his family, his immediately being magnetized to his UTSA teammates and his preference to remain out of the spotlight in a time when many of his millennial peers hopefuls crave it.
“He’s very close with his dad and his little brother, Michael,” said Michael Raines, Davenport’s high school basketball coach. “Quiet guy but polite and congenial wherever he went ... liked by everyone he came across.”
Added Wilson: “In a day and age where so much is built up on, 'it’s about me,' he’s one of the most selfless players I’ve ever been around —a team-oriented guy. In all honestly, he just wants to be one of the guys. He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself.
“I’ve had to say to him at times, ‘Just be Marcus. Don’t feel as though now you have to become this flamboyant person to attract NFL scouts or organizations. Your body of work will speak to it.’”
Davenport’s body will attract NFL clubs more than his overall body of work. His 22 career sacks and 38 tackles for loss are impressive. But some teams will have reservations over the competition his production came against — multi-sack outings vs. the likes of Alabama State, Louisiana Tech and North Texas, for instance.
Davenport, though, isn’t worried about that, just as he says he isn’t worried about where he gets drafted. “I’m blessed to even be here,” Davenport said. "It wasn’t that long ago that [being a high draft pick] wasn't even a thought or on my radar.”
It’s understandable. It wasn’t that long ago that UTSA wasn’t on the NFL radar. Only one of the program's players — Vikings’ 2016 sixth-round TE David Morgan — has been drafted.
“He’s that guy,” Wilson said of Davenport’s Round One credentials. “But he didn’t play at Alabama, he didn’t play at LSU — where you’ve had this many dominant players and it’s a way of life.
Wilson should know. A former longtime SEC assistant most recently at LSU, he was on the successful recruiting trips that brought Barkevious Mingo (the sixth overall pick in 2013) and Danielle Hunter (a third-rounder of the Vikings in 2015 who’d likely be a top-10 pick if that draft was held today) to Baton Rouge.
“I think Marcus is every bit of that and then some,” Wilson said when asked if comparisons to Mingo and Hunter are fair. “He’s as good as anyone we’ve ever had — whether it’s been at Tennessee, whether it’s been at Ole Miss, whether it’s been at LSU — he compares.
"And he’ll be able to stack up and be a dominant player for a long time in the National Football League.”
After Davenport’s eye-opening growth at UTSA, and following his Senior Bowl week culminating in him being one of the game’s most impressive performers and combine showing that ranked among his position's best, it might be time for Davenport to reset his own expectations.
“That guy’s interesting,” he said of what he hopes clubs would come away thinking after interviewing him. “That’s the best way I can put it. He’s interesting.”