Would you believe me if I told you that one of the most intriguing tight end prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft -- arguably one of the most fascinating draftees regardless of position -- never caught footballs in games with any regularity until his senior year in tiny Webb City, Missouri?
What if I told you that, had the punter on the Webb City JV team not been suspended midseason seven years ago, this young man -- now a 6-foot-7, 246 pound specimen -- almost certainly never plays college football in any capacity, let alone end up wowing NFL scouts as an invitee to Missouri's pro day.
Would you buy it?
Or what about this -- Zach Davidson was only recruited by Division II or NAIA schools as a punter, but is now counting down the days until he hears his name called draft weekend as tight end.
How about this: Davidson is less than five years removed from redshirting for the Division II Central Missouri Mules, and caught just 11 passes for them prior to a breakout 2019 season in which he was an All-American punter and tight end. And, despite being stripped of his entire senior season due to the pandemic, Davidson more than held his own at a premier pre-draft training center in South Florida with some of the best receivers, tight ends and running backs from the ACC this winter before crushing that pro day. Oh yeah, and he still hones his punting three days a week -- booming balls with ease -- and is teaching himself to long snap (he is a self-taught punter) and maybe to place hold, too. He could be one of the rarest breeds of hybrid player in the NFL ever (oh yeah, he's worked out as an H-back, as well).
Trust me. It's all legit.
This kid is a secret no longer in personnel rooms across the league after he flashed elite speed, quickness and athleticism at his pro day a week ago (Davidson's 37 ½-inch vertical would have been tops among all tight ends in the 2020 combine, and his 4.62 40-yard dash and 6.95 three-cone drill would have ranked second among everyone at his position a year ago, but they aren't 6-foot-7). Davidson himself finds all of this difficult to comprehend at times, fully aware of the uniqueness of his story; the amazing confluence of continuous hard work and bizarre circumstances renders him both humbled and overwhelmed by the NFL attention.
He's gone from an unknown, D-II punter, to perhaps an un-drafted free agent to someone now projected by many teams to go possibly as high as the end of day two of the draft (late fourth round).
"It's been a helluva ride so far," Davidson said after another recent pre-draft workout back at in Webb City (population 11,000). "And I know my road is not done yet."
Davidson, who turns 23 in July, was anything but a football prodigy back in high school. He was always quite tall, but to call him scrawny would be an understatement. He punted a bit playing youth football ("I was a big kid with a big leg," he says) but wasn't really thinking about kicking in high school. Then came the suspension of the JV punter and some on-the-spot training. During pre-game warmups the coach asked if anyone had punted before. Davidson raised his hand, eager to help his team in any way possible.
"I told him that I had punted some, and then I hit five balls and the third or fourth one went like 50 yards," Davidson said. You can guess who took over the job, and never gave it back.
"I'm glad he decided to hit a couple of mailboxes," Davidson said of the culprit who got Wally Pipped. "Without that, I may never have played college football. I may never may have gotten to this point. No doubt about it. It's pretty crazy to think about."
Davidson started working on his craft by himself, focused on his punting, taking it more seriously. He watched videos to try to perfect his technique and harness his long limbs, almost entirely on his own with the special teams coaching lacking in the kicking department. He rose quickly from reserve JV tight end to varsity punter on a team with state title aspirations.
"My junior year I only punted," said Davidson, who estimates he was 6-5, 195 at the time. "I was too valuable to the team there to play tight end. And my senior year we were state champions, and I was the third or fourth tight end. I probably played 15 snaps."
He was an All-State punter, averaging over 40 yards a kick, but, as part of a very good team, he only punted about 25 times as a junior and 25 more as a senior (while catching four passes). Small sample size in Joplin, Missouri -- not exactly an NFL talent hotbed. Did any Division I schools sniff around even a little bit? Any nibbles?
"Um," Davidson responds before taking a pregnant pause. "No. No." Then a chuckle. "Some D-II and NAIA schools and that was it. And really only as a punter."
He could have stayed a little closer to home but ultimately chose Central Missouri, 160 miles to the north. "It was good for me to step away from home," Davidson said. "It ended up being the perfect place to go."
Some 👀 Pro Day numbers for Central Missouri TE *and* punter Zach Davidson (6-6 5/8, 245):— Kevin Fishbain (@kfishbain) March 22, 2021
37.5-inch vert would’ve topped Cole Kmet from last year’s combine as No. 1 for TEs
4.62 40 and 6.95 3-cone both would’ve ranked 2nd at TE
First-team D2 All-American in 2019 (15 TDs).
Mules coach Jim Svoboda, who has been at the school 10 years and was part of a star-studded coaching staff at UCLA before that (coaching quarterbacks), knew that Davidson had innate athleticism … but by no means believed he was recruiting a future NFL tight end. If you had told Svoboda back in 2016 that he'd be fielding calls from NFL coaches and executives on a regular basis about his freshman punter a few years later, you would have gotten a sideways glance.
"I would have said you are insane, probably, at that time," Svoboda remarked.
Davidson didn't exactly make an immediate splash on the gridiron. His redshirt year was dedicated to learning what it took to play tight end and starting to bulk up. His weight reached 235 pounds by the end of the season and the coaching staff could see him starting to mold into form. The off-field gains got their attention.
"I knew he was a good athlete when we recruited him, and we saw him as more than a punter," Svoboda said. "We saw him play basketball in high school and a few minutes into the game he had two dunks, so we knew he was good athletically. After his freshman year when we tested him in the offseason we could see this kid had a lot of natural strength.
"He definitely had some things to work on with us, but you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see the kid move around the field and say he's a little different. Being 6-7, with those long levers, it was amazing how strong he was."
Davidson spent his redshirt sophomore year "learning the position more and gaining a real appreciate for the strength and agility required to play it." Svoboda has coached five All-American tight ends at Central Missouri -- never one quite as freakish and complete as this -- and, he says, if he had his druthers, "I'd run 1-2 personnel (two tight ends) 90% of the time."
Davidson played roughly 90% of the snaps as a junior, dominating as the top tight end in Division II, earning five All-American Awards. He finished in the top 10 in receiving touchdowns (15) and yards per catch (22.35!), setting school records with 225 yards against Missouri Western and catching four touchdowns in another game. He caught just 40 balls in all, however, despite his prowess, in a limited passing attack (over a third of his receptions were for a score).
In the meantime, he was also one of college football's best punters, with 48 punts averaging 40.3 yards, while also downing 19 punts inside the oppositions 20, with nine traveling 50 yards or more.
"In our offense, with what we run, this kid wasn't going to have great stats," Svoboda said. "He only caught a handful of balls in his career, but he is a helluva athlete. … And he hasn't been afraid at all to be an out-in-front guy for us. He's a true leader and he's always willing to do the work."
To say that 2020 would have been massive for Davidson would be an understatement. He needed all the film he could possibly get for NFL teams given where he was playing (and even more so considering there would be no NFL combine -- though he did get an invite -- or smaller showcase games like the Shrine), and he was excited for a new offense being installed that would likely provide more opportunities to shine. But the Mules got to practice just 25 times before the season was suspended, and then, ultimately, cancelled.
"Coach asked the leadership council if we wanted to keep working toward a scrimmage or two," said Davidson, who spent three years on the council. "And we definitely wanted to try to make that happen, and then a couple of weeks before we were going to have the scrimmages in late October or early November we got the word that they were wiped out too. It was really tough for everybody. I was really excited for my senior year and felt like I was ready to put an exclamation point on my college career."
Division II schools couldn't afford the costs of the testing and protocols required to play, with limited budgets and slim revenue streams. Regular football was impossible, but Svoboda wanted to take care of a youngster who had given so much to the program if he could. And with no games to play, Davidson had a decision to make -- leave as a grad transfer or declare for the draft.
"Before the season I told Zach, 'Dude I'll put you in the (transfer) portal and somebody will definitely pick you up and you can play anywhere,'" Davidson said. "And he goes, 'Coach, I'm not playing for anybody but the Mules.'
"He had to decide if it would be legit to put his name in for the draft, and finally he did sign with an agent (Don Yee and Carter Chow, who represent Tom Brady among many others) and it's really beautiful how this has worked out for him."
Davidson hung around campus helping to coach the tight ends ahead of an eventual spring game, working out there until graduating in mid-December. Then it was down to Florida to begin rigorous pre-draft training with the big boys from the biggest schools. Turns out he was more than ready for it.
Davidson's true indoctrination into the NFL world came at Bommarito Performance Systems, one of the premier locations for pre-draft training and a hub for current and future NFL players. Things got very real down there.
"I was able to get my body realigned and reset, and then everything took off from there," Davidson said. "I started adding speed and for the first time I was around true professional trainers and nutritionists and some highly-elite athletes. I learned about individualized training and recovery. It was amazing to be there. It was just totally different from anything I had seen before."
All of this work, of course, was in preparation for Davidson's pro day, which would take place at Missouri in conjunction with their event. This was everything for a prospect like Davidson, who missed a vital season and combine. And, well, he absolutely blew scouts away. Not just on the timed drills, but, teams told me, on the routes and catching drills as well.
"Honestly, I felt great," Davidson said. "I had a couple of missteps in my 40, and I could have been a little better, but the laser had me at 4.58. I set a few [personal records] in some drills, and it was great just to compete.
"It had been so long since I was able to perform before any sort of crowd, and now here I am performing in front of 60, 70 or a hundred scouts. And I was super excited with my numbers and we got a lot of great feedback and the buzz is out there now. I'm not a secret anymore, and I have to back that up and keep working hard and prove it on Sundays."
Svoboda said: "Who else is 6-foot-7 and runs a 6.9 L Drill (three cone drill)? That's ridiculous. I mean, I'd draft a guy just on that alone."
As Davidson walked across the track at Missouri after his workout, to get his bag and change into his tennis shoes, the path suddenly got crowded. Reps from several NFL teams wanted his ear, wanted to get to know him a little better, and the communication between player and teams has not stopped. A half dozen or so have been most persistent -- the Jets, Titans, Seahawks and Washington Football Team among them -- but Davidson also knows there is still much work to be done and aims to open as many eyes as possible. He benched 17 reps but wants to add more, and is aiming to get up to 250 pounds of muscle as well, transitioning from a lean diet for pure speed to one geared to add mass.
"The one major takeback from my pro day to improve on is that the teams want to see me get stronger," Davidson said, "and I already knew I had to add weight and strength. Before I was on a really lean diet, because speed is money. And that was the focus of everything leading up to pro day and 245 was solid for me. But I definitely feel like 250 is a good goal now."
Given how raw he is, and how few routes he has run at such a low level, Davidson is focused on his growth and football IQ as well. "I know I have a lot to learn about the position," Davidson said. To that end, Yee got him connected with former NFL tackle Eugene Chung, a former 13th overall pick who played for five NFL teams and a longtime offensive line/tight ends coach in the NFL. Who better to help hone the fundamentals and guide Davidson on his blocking, technique, hand placement and leverage? Chung first started on-field work with Davidson in Florida and has remained a vital resource since, both in person and on Zoom.
"I went over to where he was training in Miami and when I met him in person I was like, 'Jesus, this kid passes the eye test, most definitely,'" Chung said. "Just massive, 6-7, chiseled out of stone, and he can bend and run and move and catch.
"I meet him for the first time and I'm staring up at him, and he's taller than me and he's got these huge mitts for hands. I was like, 'Good God, you might end up being a tackle down the line.'"
Chung sought to fill in the gaps where Davidson's development had lagged, giving him individualized guidance and homework. Besides the field work, they would Zoom every other day, the pupil sopping up everything, dutifully taking notes, processing lessons from the white board on to the field. It began, literally, with his stance at the line of scrimmage.
"He was kind of blown away by getting in proper stance," Chung said, "and we just started building from there. And the great thing with him is he is clay; you can mold him into whatever you want. He's got no bad habits, and he catches on so fast. He's like a sponge with all the little nuggets we talked about, absorbing it all. And that was just one day."
They worked on reading cues from opposing defenders and discerning what certain rotations indicated -- an ongoing masterclass in TE 401 if you will. "He would go away to recite concepts and things to himself," Chung said, "and then I'd bring it back to see what kind of recall and football intelligence he had. And it was very impressive -- he would see it visually on the board and then transform it to the field. He's doing a really good job."
Chung is not much help when it comes to punting, however. Then again, Davidson has thrived at that despite only very brief interactions with anyone who works with specialists. It's more than a novelty, and the idea that he could punt and catch balls in the same game at the next level is hardly out of the question.
"This guy can punt the football like nothing you have ever seen," Svoboda said. "It's crazy how he can kick the ball. I know that's not the talk right now, but he is legit. You know when you hear a great golfer contact the ball and that doesn't sound like anything you've ever heard before? That's what it sounds like when you hear him kick a ball."
Punting clearly still holds sentimental value with Davidson -- it got him here after all, even if his new position is about to pay the bills in ways he could have never fathomed a few years ago.
"I still punt two to three times a week," Davidson said. "Of course, my primary focus is on tight end, but punting always came naturally to me and it's what got me to college. I never really had a kicking coach. Basically, I just taught myself. I'd watched some film and would critique myself and that was mostly the extent of it.
"I'm actually trying to teach myself to long snap, too, and I have been studying that and I think I could add value as a backup long snapper. And I've also been working on place holder some, and trying to hone my specialist skills as a second position or two. A few teams are interested in the special teams stuff and have brought it up, but primarily they want to talk to me about tight end."
The more you can do, right?
Davidson is pretty much all football, hanging out with his girlfriend and trying to maximize this most improbably opportunity. He is humble as can be, tickled that anyone would be interested in his story, and Svoboda is hearing regularly from tight end coaches and scouts who want to glean all they can about this most unique prospect.
Svoboda was around Marcedes Lewis quite a bit during their time at UCLA, and sees a lot of similarities between the tight ends. Lewis was a first-round pick in 2006 and former Pro Bowler who remains a key cog for the Packers with his 37th birthday looming. Not a bad comp at all.
With the right coaching, a little patience, and some time in an NFL weight room, Davidson could become a star. He is very mature, but also, as a pure football player, quite raw.
The athletic potential is off the charts; he is high character with no off-field concerns and high intellect, clearly embodying a growth mindset. Svoboda actually chuckles a bit at some of the queries he gets from NFL types. Like so many who have worked with this young man, Svoboda portends big things still ahead.
"You hear from scouts and quite a few position coaches too, and there are always going to be questions with a guy like this," Svoboda said. "And I've coached all levels of college football, mainly Division II, and they all want to know how tough he is, and how he's going to react when there are 70,000 people packed in a loud stadium and all of that stuff.
"And, honestly, it's a little crazy to me, some of it. I get that part of this is the level of competition, but success predicts success. And this kid is really grounded, and he gets it. You always say that some kids know the deal; a lot of them don't and very few kids know the deal early on. He does. He has that ability to connect the dots between what you do, and the results that you will get.
"He's just a joy to be around and a very grateful kid and this is really nice to see. He's one of those kids who always wants to thank for you all you did. 'Thank you, coach, I love this program.' Those are the things that keep you going as a coach. It's the best of all worlds when your best player is your best kid and your best leader. And I can point to that guy and say, 'That's how you do it.' And that's Zach."