Success often comes when preparation meets opportunity, and this will ring true for Appalachian State linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither when he shows off his skills at the 2020 Reese’s Senior Bowl.
While many of the prospects that headline the 2020 NFL Draft are training with an eye towards the NFL Scouting Combine, small school talents and fringe draft picks are merely preparing for their next opportunity to prove that they belong. Some take advantage of those few opportunities to impress NFL brass and emerge from anonymity, while others shrink in their career-defining moments.
Davis-Gaither is a prime example of someone who has been overlooked because of the conference that he plays in. Or his size. Or his questionable fit at the next level. Well, I’m here to tell you that the Sun Belt star is perhaps the best defensive player in the 2020 NFL Draft that you’ve never heard of.
In Mobile, Alabama, Akeem Davis-Gaither will have his opportunity to prove to NFL evaluators that he can be a difference-maker at the next level in due time.
Davis-Gaither’s college production at Appalachian State
Over the past two seasons, Davis-Gaither has quietly emerged as one of the best linebackers in college football. Predominantly known as a special teams maven and spot performer on defense early in his college career, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound outside linebacker has been a prominent contributor to the Mountaineers’ success against Power 5 programs in 2019.
A year ago, Davis-Gaither took the college football world by storm after amassing a team-leading 105 tackles, 1.5 sacks, seven pass breakups, and two forced fumbles in his first season as a full-time starter. His range and instincts took center stage in his breakout season, as his eight pass breakups were eighth-best in the country among non-defensive backs. He earned second-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors for his efforts.
For Davis-Gaither, his best season was his last season, however.
Starting all 13 games, the rangy linebacker racked up a staggering 104 tackles (14.5 for loss), five sacks, eight pass breakups, six quarterback hits, and an interception in his final season in Boone. Davis-Gaither earned first-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors and was named the 2019 Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year for his performance.
Akeem Davis-Gaither at the 2020 Reese’s Senior Bowl
Davis-Gaither was included in a prolific Senior Bowl class that features the likes of fellow outside linebackers Zack Baun, Troy Dye, and Davion Taylor. The significance? Those players have all faced a higher level of competition at the collegiate level than the reigning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year.
Davis-Gaither will need to show up to Mobile as advertised, demonstrating to evaluators that he has the technique and mental makeup to compete at the next level. Though he should particularly shine in coverage — he could very well be the best of the bunch in that area — he will need to show that he can hold the point of attack against the run, and can effectively stack and shed blocks.
Whether it has been Charleston’s John Cominsky or Alabama State’s Tytus Howard, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy gives small school standouts every opportunity to be successful. I fully anticipate Akeem Davis-Gaither to be among the players that generate significant buzz throughout Senior Bowl week, ultimately boosting a 2020 NFL Draft stock that will only continue to soar in the coming months.
At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Davis-Gaither has the ideal build that defensive coaches look for in new-age NFL linebackers.
Granted, Davis-Gaither will likely never become that early-down, downhill thumper against the run. His rare athleticism and elite coverage prowess, however, should enable him to see the field in sub packages to start his career. As more and more teams begin to implement the spread offense and 12 personnel to take advantage of mismatches, rangy defenders with solid ball production — like Davis-Gaither — will be in high demand.
Davis-Gaither is a tremendously instinctual player that is quick to diagnose plays and flow to the football. His sideline to sideline range and lateral agility gives him an added advantage over most players in the 2020 NFL Draft. Armed with an athleticism that is unparalleled, a lengthy wingspan, and an astute football mind, Davis-Gaither also has the ability to affect the game as a pass rusher; he tallied 6.5 over his final two seasons from his outside linebacker spot.
A dynamic hybrid defender like Davis-Gaither could be the NFL’s solution to defending the recent surplus of athletic tight ends and running backs in the passing game. While he may need to gain an additional ten pounds to hold up against the run and withstand the typical rigors that come with a 16-game season, he has the ability to upgrade any defense by a wide margin. It’s only a matter of time before the Sun Belt phenom becomes a household name.