KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Here’s what it’s like to be Big Man on Campus: At 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Corey Davis reports to Western Michigan’s wide receiver meeting room. He plops his binder on a desk in the front row, ready to take notes. Mounted in front of him is a cartoonishly large photo portrait of… himself.
Over the summer, WMU staffers were tasked with redecoration. For meeting rooms, they chose portraits of two Bronco greats at each position. And at wideout one of them is Davis.
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“The guys give Corey some crap for that photo,” says wide receivers coach Matt Simon.
“They didn’t even tell me they were going to put it up!” Davis protests. “One day, I show up and it’s just there. It’s kind of weird just starting at yourself. It’s an O.K. picture I guess…. I think my eyes might be closed though.”
For Davis, it might be the only complaint he has in 2016. Western Michigan is 4-0 entering Saturday’s Mid-American Conference rivalry game against Central Michigan. Leveraging momentum from their first-ever bowl win, the Broncos have knocked off two Big Ten teams—Northwestern and Illinois, both on the road. At the center of it all is Davis, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound polished route runner with outstanding hands and the athleticism for the next level. Had Davis declared for the NFL in 2015, one scout says he could have gone late first round. The only other MAC receiver ever taken in Round 1? Marshall’s Randy Moss, in 1998.
But Davis returned to school, in large part to work toward his degree. On the field this season, coaches have slid him around the formation to create opportunities—Davis lines up in the slot, out wide, and runs nearly every route. He has been swarmed by double teams, yet is still averaging six catches for 99 yards and a touchdown per game. At the pace he is currently on, he’ll leave college football atop the FBS all time career receiving yards list. (He’s 825 away with eight regular-season games to go, plus a likely bowl game and potentially the MAC championship game.)
On this Wednesday, as the Broncos prepare for a meeting with Sun Belt Conference front-runner Georgia Southern (a game they would win, 49-31), Simon focuses on a few mechanics for his eight-man receiving group: route speeds, blocking, and how to attack press coverage with “back shoulder throws allllll day,” according to Simon.
But first, the coach instructs his pupils to tear off a sheet of paper. “Write down one thing that you want in your life. Maybe it’s a championship. Maybe it’s a car. Just write down one thing you want, and hand it over to me.”
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Davis was born in South Side, Chicago, and his family moved to the suburb of Wheaton when he was in kindergarten. He was the second-youngest of seven children. The Davis family all had athletic potential. Older brother Titus, now 23, was a star receiver at Central Michigan and spent last season on the Jets practice squad. Money was tight and food was scarce in the four-bedroom house. Structure was an issue. Corey skipped school often. When he asked his Pee Wee coach, Dan Graham, for a ride home from practice one day, it soon became a habit.
Dan’s son, Ryan, and Corey became close. By junior year of high school, when Davis says things hit rock bottom at home, the Grahams offered to take him in. Dan Graham is now Corey’s legal guardian, though Corey still has a relationship with his biological parents. (Ryan Graham is the quarterback at MAC West rival Northern Illinois.)
College prospects seemed bleak for Davis, whose transcript did not feature a grade above a C. The Grahams helped arrange tutors and set guidelines for him to graduate. Davis says he generated some interest from Division-1 programs, but nobody would commit to him.
Meanwhile in Kalamazoo, P.J. Fleck was hired as coach of Western Michigan in December 2013, off a stint as the wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Fleck is part of the Greg Schiano coaching tree). Scrambling to assemble a class before National Signing Day, Fleck, an Illinois native, reached out to every coach he knew in the area.
Enamored by Davis’s story, Fleck offered him a scholarship. “When I got to WMU,” Davis says, “I felt like I had a purpose.”
Fleck, now 35, was the youngest coach in FBS until Memphis hired Mike Norvell last December. He’s known for his high-octane personality. He leads practices barking through a microphone headset normally reserved for group fitness instructors. During his one-hour team meeting on Wednesday, he dropped his preferred word, “elite,” nine times, and catered his message around donuts—including handing out a frosted dozen and swinging a baseball bat. (The overarching theme: fill in the missing holes.)
“Ohio State has what?” he barked at 7:59 a.m. “Tradition!” the team responds.
“Michigan has what?” Fleck asked. “Tradition,” they respond.
“You all have some tradition, but you also get to create your own.”
Fleck’s best player is his polar opposite from a personality standpoint. During Fleck’s speech, Davis sat in the front row, silent. Nearly everyone in and around the program describes Davis as shy. He spent all summer at campus. In the fall, if he’s not at class or at the football building for organized activities, he’s at the football building. Simon has often arrived at his office to find Davis already there, scrolling through plays on the coach’s laptop. “It’s not like he works to be seen,” Simon says. “Like, ‘Hey I'm working over here!’ He wants to work in silence and he wants to work quite literally when nobody is watching.”
When scouts visit campuses to do recon on prospects, they’ll often ask: Does the player love football? Davis shows without telling, by staying after every practice to shag balls. Sometimes he’ll do distraction drills, implemented by Fleck and Simon: They’ll run through more than 100 ball drills, sometimes using cut-open footballs, other times lacrosse or tennis balls. This perhaps explains why drops are rare for Davis. According to Pro Football Focus, Davis had just 15 drops on 183 catchable passes through last year.
“At first Corey didn't want to lead,” Simon says. “He wanted to do his job and do it the very best he could. But he developed the mindset: If I do it and just tell someone else they should, they’ll do it.”
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Davis will likely leave campus in December, some 20 credits shy of graduating. And though he admits, “I’ve always hated school, I always hate going to classes,” Simon says Davis has been booking appointments with academic advisors on his own to make sure he will stay on track.
“The NFL was his end goal, but it was never his motivation,” Simon says. “He understood that he wanted to change his life from what it was when he grew up. He’s using the NFL as motivation to be able to do that. But what truly motivates him is not living the life that he had. He wants a family, he wants kids, and he doesn't want this family to go through what he had.”
The first round is well-within reach. Though he’s a small-school prospect, there has been a MAC pipeline to the league. The NFL’s best receiver, Antonio Brown, is a MAC alum (Central Michigan), as are star teammates Ben Roethlisberger (Miami-Ohio) and James Harrison (Kent State). Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack rose to stardom at the University of Buffalo. Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) was the first overall pick of the 2013 draft, and fellow CMU alum Joe Staley has been a rock at left tackle for the 49ers. Davis wouldn’t even be the first star receiver to come out of Western Michigan. Greg Jennings, a second-round pick in 2006, turned in three 1,000-yard seasons for the Packers.
Another thing in Davis’s favor: he has faced competition. “I’ve gone against Darqueze Dennard, Eli Apple…” he rattles off. Davis has 617 receiving yards and four touchdowns in seven career games against Big Ten teams, highlighted by a 10-catch, 154-yard, one-touchdown performance against Michigan State in the 2015 season opener.
Still, Davis gets genuinely bashful when he thinks about the attention he’s getting. “It’s so weird when I walk on campus and there’s people whispering, ‘Is that Corey Davis? Oh my god, that’s him,’” he says.
An hour later, walking through his academic building, Davis is oblivious to two co-eds on the staircase below, ogling him. One opens the Snapchat app on her phone. (It doesn’t hurt that Davis is wearing a team-issued button-down; Fleck requires all players to wear collared shirts to class.)
Before he enters his 3 p.m. class, I ask Davis what he wrote down in the wide receivers’ meeting room earlier that morning. What does he really want in life?
A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Eagles defensive back Jalen Mills hyping his former teammate in the LSU secondary, Jamal Adams.
“Jamal is an aggressive guy. We play with the same kind of attitude. Jamal plays with a lot of energy, he’s always flying around. He’s a solid football player. He doesn’t try to force anything, he lets the plays come to him. He is super smart, has a very high football IQ. As soon as he came in as a freshman, he impressed all of us with how quickly he was able to adapt. For sure he can play in the NFL. He’s for sure going to be one of the top guys in the draft this year. I feel like once he gets in the NFL he’s going to adjust incredibly quick and make the same plays he’s making in college.”
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THE ANONYMOUS SCOUT
A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…
Dawuane Smoot, DE, Illinois: Very explosive off the edge, explosive first step. An athletic defensive end. Liked him a lot when watching film of Jihad Ward [in 2015]. Think he could still add some bulk [Smoot is listed at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds].
Adam Bisnowaty, OT, Pittsburgh: Has a lot of experience, but missed some time in each of the past three seasons with injury. Long arms and a powerful punch. Plays nasty. Nice kick slide. Some might consider sliding him to guard but I like him [in the NFL] as a tackle.
Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee: It’s a deep class of edge pass rushers. Barnett is a high motor guy. Quick off the snap and strong at point of attack. Could see him as a productive defensive end in a 4-3.
When The MMQB visited Tampa Bay on our training camp tour, we were surprised to find a familiar book sitting on the coffee table in Dirk Koetter’s office: “Oh the Places You’ll Go,” by Dr. Seuss.
“Every message that a coach gives his team is in that book,” Koetter told us.
Nearly two months later, I’m in Kalamazoo, in the office of Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck, and he casually offers that “Oh the Places You’ll Go” is his favorite book. Really?
“Oh yeah,” he says, fetching his copy from a bookcase hidden behind a leather couch.
I told him that Koetter also had said that anything you need to know about football can be found in that book. “That’s true,” Fleck said. “But also, anything you need to know about life can be found in that book.”
By the time I returned to Chicago that night, I found myself making a pit stop at Barnes & Noble and buying myself a copy.
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WHAT I’M WATCHING
Saturday unless noted, all times Eastern…
No. 7 Stanford at No. 10 Washington (9 p.m. Friday): The Cardinal are disciplined, stingy on defense and feature the do-everything-and-anything super back in Christian McCaffery. We know what Stanford is. The Huskies are more of an enigma. A trendy preseason pick, Washington has climbed the polls without really being tested. The Huskies boast an embarrassment of talent in their secondary. I’ve heard scouts gush about three of their players (Budda Baker, Kevin King and Sidney Jones).
No. 8 Wisconsin at No. 4 Michigan (3:30 p.m.): Jim Harbaugh’s squad has rolled to a 4-0 start, averaging 52 points per game, but they haven’t really been challenged (and I say this as a Penn State alumna). Wisconsin’s defense — especially its run defense — is no joke, but the Badgers can’t beat their third Top 10 opponent in five weeks… can they?
Western Michigan at Central Michigan (7 p.m.): Want to check out Corey Davis yourself? No better game than this. (Students petitioned to have this classic MAC rivalry as site of ESPN’s Game Day, to no avail). Central Michigan has NFL-worthy talent, too. Scouts are intrigued by quarterback Cooper Rush: 6-foot-3, 230-pounds with a strong arm, good movement, and video-game like production.
Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage highlights senior match-ups he’ll be keeping an eye on this week.
Louisville OLB Devonte Fields vs. Clemson TE Jordan Leggett (Saturday, 8 p.m.): The Cardinals can put themselves in perfect position to control the Atlantic Division of the ACC with a win at Death Valley, while Clemson wants to continue regaining their 2015 form in advance of their trip to Florida State at the end of October. Fields (6' 4″, 242 pounds) is an ideal fit in defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense because of his build, overall athleticism and pass-rush potential. After being dismissed from the TCU due to a misdemeanor assault charge that was later dropped, he played one season at Trinity Valley Community College (Texas) before signing with Louisville. Last year, he registered 63 total tackles, 22 tackles-for-loss and 10.5 sacks. Through four games of his senior season, he has 20 total tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 sacks and an interception. Leggett (6' 5″, 255 pounds) enjoyed a sensational junior campaign, grabbing 40 passes for 525 yards (13.1avg) and 8 touchdowns. To this point in 2016, he only has five receptions for 40 yards and a score, so the Tigers would love to get him more involved in the offense, especially in the red zone.
Best of the Rest:
Toledo RB Kareem Hunt vs. BYU LB Harvey Langi Stanford WR Michael Rector vs. Washington CB Kevin King South Florida LB Nigel Harris vs. Cincinnati RB Tion Green Notre Dame CB Cole Luke vs. Syracuse WR Amba Etta-Tawo
When I first moved to Chicago, I figured I’d be cool and order Goose Island at any bar I went to. Turns out, most Chicagoans consider local beer to be any beer in the Midwest*. Which is great, because I was introduced to Bell’s—I really like the Oberon. The Bell’s brewery is in Kalamazoo, less than two miles from WMU’s campus. They have a very cute beer garden that actually looks like a garden—stone paths, potted shrubbery, picnic tables and all. It’s called the Eclectic Cafe, and the 5 p.m. weekday crowd certainly fit its billing: Me bumming around on my laptop, a table of four college guys who must have chugged five IPAs each in an hour, an elderly man playing the guitar and a middle-aged couple literally nibbling on deviled eggs.
* — An aside about Michigan: I have learned there is nothing that offends Michigan folks more than assuming they are in Central Time Zone. “Um, Michigan is East Coast,” I have had scoffed at me, more than once this summer. I did not hear that from the Western Michigan football staff, which wholeheartedly agreed with me. Even Fleck (an Illinois native) admitted the Central time zone assumption has created a few mishaps with recruits. That made me feel validated.