Photo Credit: Southern Illinois Athletics
At 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, running back D.J. Davis has been considered undersized for most of his football career.
While attending American Heritage-Delray High School, Davis was a part of one of the state’s most illustrious football programs. The Stallions made it to the FHSAA State Finals twice, losing both times to Trinity Christian. In 2015, his senior season, Davis was named to the FHSAA All-State third-team.
Despite the accolades and strong high school career, Davis was under-recruited by colleges before choosing Southern Illinois.
“Mostly because of size and the position,” Johnson said. “Just being an undersized running back, I feel like I bring a lot to the table and I feel like I just didn’t have the size that colleges were looking for in an every-down back.”
After a 4-year career with Southern Illinois, Davis is ready for the NFL Draft and ready to prove his small size doesn’t matter.
“You can use me a lot out the backfield and I have great vision. Also my heart, there’s something you can’t teach in a player,” Johnson explained when asked what separates him over other running backs, despite his size. “It’s fear no man on the field, fear no man at all, only fear God. That’s the type of mindset I have every time I step on the field. I have something to prove each and every time I get out there, because I know there’s someone thinking [that I’m undersized].”
High School Football in South Florida
Across the high school football landscape, there are very few places with as much talent as South Florida. As of January 2020, there were 27 players in the NFL from Miami. Nearby Fort Lauderdale has 14 players in the NFL.
Davis recalled the competition level in South Florida, where he played high school football.
“I feel like it’s week in, week out, you’re going up against some of the best athletes of the nation. It’s hard-fought each and every week. Even in practice, you got other guys on the team that has incredible talent that you just have to go up against each and every day and it only makes you better,” Jackson recalled. “So, it’s amazing going up against each athlete because a lot of them have great success in college and get the chance to go onto the NFL… It’s just a great experience.”
Top High School Football Talent
Over his time in South Florida’s high school scene, Davis has battled multiple top players, including some who played against Trinity Christian in Jacksonville.
“Junior and senior year, when we played Trinity Christian, those guys had a whole lot of athletes on their team: Kevin Toliver, Jeff Holland, he went to Auburn,” Davis said. “Those guys were loaded. I think it was like nine of the 11 starters on defense ended up going Division I FBS. So, they had incredible talent.”
In terms of local talent faced, Davis recalled two Palm Beach County teams that he faced.
“Oxbridge [Academy] down here with Travis Homer and those guys that played for them,” Johnson said. “The other American Heritage [Plantation], when we played them my junior year, had Torrance Gibson and Dedrick Snelson and those guys. It’s been a lot of talent that we had to play over the years.”
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After his high school career, Davis chose to attend Southern Illinois, an FCS football program located in Carbondale, Illinois. When asked why he committed to SIU, he mentioned the culture built by head coach Nick Hill.
“The environment, the coaches, the players. I mean, the environment and the atmosphere is just crazy and what I mean by that is that the culture that coach Hill is bringing up and putting into the system. You know, my freshman year came he had just got the job. Kind of changing things around from how they were,” Johnson said. “When I took my visit there, it was like a home feeling with the players and the coaches. We treat each other like family. And then, the fans around and the coaches’ wives, it’s a big family. …It’s been a decision of my life that I’ll never forget.”
Davis began his college career as a receiving back for Southern Illinois. In his freshman season, Davis led the team in all-purpose yards per game (110.2) and was named to the All-MVFC Newcomer Team. Davis finished the season with 217 rushing yards, 212 receiving yards and 781 kick return yards, including a 98-yard kick return touchdown.
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After a similar sophomore season for Davis, his junior season brought a new role. He switched from a primarily receiving and change-of-pace running back to a 3-down back.
In his junior season, Davis was named to the Second-Team All-MVFC, as he ran for 1,118 yards, the most by a Southern Illinois running back since Jewel Hampton in 2011. Through the air, Davis added 201 yards on 29 receptions.
“That offseason coming into the junior year, I feel like I was kind of the next back up,” Davis said. “I was going to get the opportunity to present myself and show myself that I was going to be an every-down back throughout camp and Spring ball. So, I dove into it headfirst. Diving into the playbook, learning everything that I needed to know and just proving myself in the weight room.”
Davis’ senior season saw similar production. Despite suffering a dislocated elbow that caused him to miss two games, Davis finished with another strong season on the ground. On 189 carries, he finished with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Davis once again finished the season on the All-MVFC Second-Team.
For Davis, it was the culmination of proving his critics wrong.
“I just took advantage of the opportunities that were presented to me,” Davis said. “Freshman year, I [started] I think three, four games at running back and the production just increased each and every year. So, during the offseason, I just wanted to hit the weights and prove that I could be an every-down back.”
— Saluki Football (@SIU_Football) September 16, 2018
At the end of his career, Davis finished fifth all-time in career rushing yards (2,697) for the Salukis. Davis also finished second all-time in program history for all-purpose yards (5,431).
Culture Change at SIU
Davis’ senior season also saw an increase in team success. After winning just two games in 2018, the Salukis increased their win total to seven games, including a win against FBS opponent UMass early in the season.
“The seniors, we wanted to go out with a bang … Like I said earlier, Coach Hill, he’s changing that culture around and we’ve been a part of that culture since we were freshman,” Johnson said. “So, we felt like we had to turn it around. We wanted to hit the playoffs but we ended up falling short. The productivity that we brought, the players, the coaches, it was just amazing. I felt like it was the key to turning the program right back around to where it needed to be.”
Davis felt the turn around coming as early as fall camp.
“I realized it in fall camp before the season even started. Just being in practice with the guys and the culture that we started bringing up, it was an amazing feeling,” Johnson explained. “As leaders, we wanted to bring not only the aspect of being on the field but we wanted to be off the field as well. We wanted to be leaders.”
A part of that culture change happened off the field, as the team got closer. For Johnson, this was one of his fondest memories.
“Kind of just being together with the guys. …It just like we formed a brotherhood together that can’t be replaced,” Johnson recalled. “Like, I’m back here at home but I still know what’s going on with everybody. Keep in contact with everybody. We got a group chat together, we crack jokes, we kind of built that solid foundation with each other.”
NFL Draft Prep
After the season, Davis played in the Hula Bowl, a draft showcase in Hawaii. Among Davis’ favorite memories from the Hula Bowl was meeting hall of fame running back Erik Dickerson.
“It was amazing. Like I told everybody, you can never turn a trip down to Hawaii,” Davis said. “It was incredible, meeting all types of people, the people that were very nice, very friendly. And getting the chance to compete with all other athletes from all over the place, all over the country. FBS, FCS, D2, D3, it doesn’t matter, we were all athletes there trying to get to our goals.”
During the offseason, Davis has met with the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, and Dallas Cowboys.