One of the most dominant defensive players in all of college football the past few years grew up right in Tennessee’s backyard, but the guy never played a down for the Vols or anyone else in the SEC.
Instead, Davis Tull ended up at Chattanooga, where he blossomed into a three-time Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first defensive player to three-peat in the SoCon since Appalachian State’s Dexter Coakley won the award three times in the mid-90s. The 6-3, 240-pound Tull piled up 37 career sacks (fourth all-time in FCS), 60 tackles for loss and 10 forced fumbles. This year, against the Vols, he had a sack and two TFLs against the team he grew up rooting for.
Later this week, Tull has a chance to create some buzz at the NFL scouting Combine. FOXSports.com caught up with him to explore, among other things, how he ended up at UTC, his chaotic recruiting ride and what he hopes to prove to NFL folks this week.
Q: I read where you grew up only about five minutes from the UT campus. Did you go to camps at UT and any other SEC schools growing up?
Tull: I did not go to any camps at any SEC schools. UT sent me some basic recruiting letters but nothing serious.
Q: Before you broke your leg, what kind of recruiting interest did you have?
Tull: I was talking to some Conference USA and Big East teams and the military schools. I really liked Cincinnati at the time and I felt like I could fit into their 3-4 defense very well. I went to a camp there and visited over the summer and that was where I was initially hoping to go.
Q: How big were you entering your senior season, and at that point,why do you think FBS schools hadn’t offered you?
Tull: My senior year I was probably 205-210 pounds and the same height I am now. I would classify myself as a late bloomer athletically; I needed another year or so to grow into my body and I was on the small side for a defensive end. I played more wide receiver in high school than defense. Most of the schools recruiting me told me they were about to offer me but once I broke my leg they disappeared.
Q: I had seen a story where after you broke your leg in high school, lots of recruiters bailed. One of the stories you were quoted as saying that basically one coach hung up on you when you told him how bad the injury was. What exactly happened there and which school was it?
Tull: I was under the impression that I had shown enough talent to warrant a scholarship when I got hurt and was still thinking I was going to sign on signing day. Once the news broke, college recruiters essentially gave up on me. Most of them said they would call me later but looking back on it they were just searching for a way off the phone. One found a quicker way to end the call, guess.
Q: After you saw doctors, what did they say about your prospects of returning to form as a football player?
Tull: I broke my femur so it was a somewhat serious injury. I was rushed to the hospital that night and had surgery. The doctor knew I could get back to playing football; it was just inopportune timing. It took months of work to get healed and back to form for football, but the good thing was it was a bone and not a ligament. Once it healed there were no lingering effects.
Q: What happened late in the recruiting process with Georgia Southern and after that fell through, how long before you figured out where you’d be attending college?
Tull: Georgia Southern had just hired a coach as defensive coordinator who had recruited me while he was at Memphis. He contacted me late in the process to let me know he wanted to offer me a scholarship. I found out they had another defensive end recruit who didn’t have an injury and they were waiting to hear his decision. The coach told me he would contact me the day before signing day and when that day came and went I gave them a call that was never returned. UTC had stayed with me since my junior season and were going to still offer me a partial scholarship.
At the time they were under NCAA sanctions and had fewer scholarships than other schools. Even after they ran out of money they always showed me interest and wanted to make sure I came there even if I had to walk on. They just couldn’t afford to take the risk if my leg were to not heal like it was supposed to.
I went on a visit down there shortly after signing day and made plans to attend the school. It made the most sense being in-state financially and I was fortunate to go in with some academic scholarships. Coach Huesman put me on scholarship that spring semester after I had proved I was healthy and worth it and I will always be grateful for the opportunity they gave me to continue my dream of playing football.
Q: Going to college as a walk-on and falling through the cracks as a recruit, how much do you think that drove you to become the player you are now?
Tull: UTC treated me very well as a walk-on. I roomed with scholarship players and came in at the same time and no one even knew I was a walk-on. That process definitely motivated me to become the best player I could be and not only show Chattanooga that they should have offered me but show the other schools we played what they missed out on. I have said before that I thank God for putting me in that situation.
What looked like such a disaster actually wound up being a blessing in disguise that drove me to outwork and outplay my competition. I always kept up with the other ends in my class and made sure to outplay them on the field. The recruiting process definitely put a chip on my shoulder to prove to everyone that I was a lot better than they thought. It forced me to make sure I was always outworking everyone else. I wrote down my goals before starting my first camp but never showed anyone because they would say I was being unrealistic. I was able to use that motivation and with the help of the people around me at UTC, exceed those goals.
Q: You put up very big numbers as a pass-rusher and with tackles for loss. What’s the most important thing you hope to show NFL people this week and over the next few months leading into the draft?
Tull: I hope to show the NFL that I am one of the best athletes in this draft. The numbers show that I am a good football player and understand how to make plays but I want to show that I also am an NFL caliber athlete. The NFL combine offers me the opportunity to do that and I am planning on taking full advantage of that exposure I may have missed out on at an FCS school.
I hope to surprise people this week with my overall athleticism and show the ability to make the conversion from defensive end to linebacker if need be. I also am looking forward to getting to know people and showing off the intangibles that make me a good football player.
Q: Realistically, what are some of the testing numbers you expect to produce at the Combine in Indy?
Tull: At the combine I plan on running fast and jumping high. My goals are set and I want to be a top performer in every category.