It's hard to imagine Marcus Davenport was once a rail-thin wide receiver.
Davenport, the former UTSA defensive end projected to be a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, passes the eye test and then some. Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing a muscular 264 pounds, Davenport looks like he was born to terrorize quarterbacks. He moves it like, too—at the NFL Combine, he wowed pro personnel with a 4.58 40-Yard Dash, a 10-foot-4 Broad Jump and a 7.20 Three-Cone Drill.
When a small school prospect with enormous potential like Davenport bursts onto the scene during draft season, analysts obsess about what they might become. Phrases like "limitless ceiling" and "tremendous upside" litter his scouting reports. Those assessments may be true, but how did Davenport get here in the first place? How did a kid ranked as the 2,613th recruit in his class end up with the fortunes of an NFL franchise resting on his shoulders?
For much of his childhood, Davenport dreamed of playing in the NBA. His basketball highlights at John Paul Stevens High School (San Antonio, Texas) show a towering player who could impact the game on both ends with surprising-for-his-size athleticism. On the gridiron, Davenport ended up in the role many basketball players do—catching passes. His long arms and athletic ability made him a solid receiver, but Stevens employed a run-heavy offensive attack. Instead of wasting Davenport's athleticism at receiver, his coaches reasoned, why not try him at defensive end?
The position switch was initially a tough sell for Davenport, but he became enamored when his high school coach, Daryl Hemphill, explained the position in detail. "You get to come off the ball every play, you get to swat, swim, sack, you get to turn counters inside out," Hemphill, per TexasFootball.com, recalls telling Davenport. "You used to use your long arms to get the ball and catch it and get hit. Now, you use them to separate from a blocker and go hit somebody."
Davenport soon proved to be a more disruptive football player than he was a productive basketball player. Though his physique was far from intimidating, he had an uncanny ability to bat down passes and his freakishly long arms helped prevent linemen from locking onto him. Davenport also had a non-stop motor, something his father, Ron Davenport, helped instill in him at an early age.
Marcus also ran track, so Ron would frequently have his son perform grueling track workouts after school or practice. "Growing up, my dad would make us go out and work. We could never quit, quitting was never an option, so I feel like that really helped me," Davenport says. "We'd go out to the track and run miles. So it was track workouts, a lot of endurance-type things."
Soon enough, teams began running away from the long-limbed defensive end—yet Davenport was so raw at the time, his coaches had to explain to him that that was a good thing.
After a junior season filled with flashes of potential dominance, Davenport had a phenomenal senior season for Stevens. He recorded 73 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, six sacks and six pass break-ups en route to first-team All-District honors. There was just one problem—he was still built like a string bean. While he'd tried to bulk up to look more like your typical D1-bound defensive end, he simply couldn't keep the weight on. Going straight from football into basketball and then to track left him little time for the weight room, and the daily practices had him torching thousands of calories each day. Combined with his naturally fast metabolism, the teenaged Davenport was all but allergic to accruing mass.
Along with his late emergence as a true prospect, Davenport's slender frame was a deal breaker for big-time college programs. When National Signing Day rolled around, he held exactly three offers: UTSA, UNLV and New Mexico. 247Sports had him as the 2,613th-rated recruit in his class. A kid named Myles Garrett was ranked second in that same class, a fact which was not lost on Davenport. He'd competed alongside Garrett at a high school football camp and saw his dominance first-hand. "One thing I admire about Myles Garrett is how natural he looks. It looks like he was made to play," Davenport says. From that day forward, Davenport strived to be as good as Garrett—with hopes of eventually surpassing him.
Davenport opted to stay close to home, enrolling at UTSA. He arrived on campus in 2014 at a spindly 6-foot-5, 198 pounds. After watching Davenport during camp, then head coach Larry Coker believed the lanky true freshman could make an immediate impact as a situational pass-rush specialist. UTSA's roster wasn't exactly loaded with stars at the time, as the program had played its first-ever game just three years prior, and Coker was eager to get athleticism on the field. Playing out of a two-point stance, Davenport totaled 14 tackles and 3 sacks during his true freshman campaign.
Davenport knew that if ever wanted to be more than a third-and-long specialist, he had to put on a massive amount of weight and greatly improve his play strength. "I wasn't weak, but I wasn't the strongest," Davenport says. "I've come so far." With no other sports to steal time from the weight room, he went to work.
By his sophomore season, he was up to about 220 pounds. He was still undersized, but the extra mass and muscle proved valuable on the field. That season, he racked up 49 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles to earn honorable mention All-Conference USA accolades.
Coker stepped down shortly thereafter, and Frank Wilson was named the Roadrunners' new head coach in January of 2016. When he first saw Davenport, he wasn't quite sure what to make of him. This was a player with elite speed and athleticism, but a body type that didn't lend itself to a natural position.
"You saw glimpses of him having ability," Wilson told TexasFootball.com. "But he had a frail body. You were hopeful this kid had a future, but we didn't see it as, 'We've got a future first-rounder.'" Wilson urged him to put on pounds ahead of the 2016 season, and Davenport took that to heart. Stating he was "Chasing Garrett" (presumably Myles), Davenport was determined to become an elite edge defender:
Last time im on this thing, Chasing Garrett
— Marcus Davenport (@MarcusJD84) April 19, 2016
Thanks to hundreds of grilled chicken sandwiches, gallons of chocolate milk and thousands of reps in the weight room, Davenport reported to his junior camp tipping the scales at 238 pounds. That season, UTSA ran a 3-4 defense. Wilson initially tabbed Davenport to play a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role. He handled the more diverse responsibilities just fine, but the Roadrunners struggled to get consistent pressure during the first half of the season. Wilson knew Davenport was the team's best weapon for harassing the quarterback, so he cut down on his pass drops and increased his pass rushes. It worked like a charm—over the team's final six games of 2016, Davenport totaled 4.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss.
"He would be dropping in coverage, and we couldn't get the pressure we wanted. We made a conscious effort to do what he did best—rush the quarterback," Wilson recently told the NFL Network. Davenport finished his junior season with 68 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 8 quarterback hurries to earn second-team All-Conference USA honors.
It was about 16 months ago that Davenport's trajectory truly began its ascent from late-round sleeper to potential top-10 pick. His meteoric rise was due to a number of factors, including an increased awareness of schemes and a bigger toolbox of pass-rushing tactics. But two factors were arguably more important than the rest—he gained weight, and he gained confidence.
"It wasn't until this last year that my body matured and I was able to make the jump to gain so much weight," Davenport says. "In the morning, I would go eat breakfast right before practice. Then right after practice, I'd go get Panda Express—probably wasn't the best choice. Then after class I'd go and get Chili's and order two chicken Alfredo pastas. Then my day went on from there, keep on eating all throughout the day. Subway, drinking our Core Powers—I didn't really stop eating until I went to bed."
But Davenport wanted to add 20 pounds of muscle, not flab. That's why he coupled his constant feasting with a ferocious approach to the weight room. "I can't attribute it just to eating, we worked out a lot. Me and (UTSA strength coach Ryan Filo), he really got me into the workouts. It wasn't just food, it was muscle. I was the heaviest I'd ever been, but I felt light," Davenport says. When Davenport and his new body hit the field for practice, he felt better than ever. After years of trying to bulk up, he couldn't believe he was finally playing at a weight that once seemed like a pipe dream.
"We went out there and started practicing and I felt strong. It was crazy to actually think about. I'm like 'Wow, I'm really over here gaining.' I'd look down at the scale and it says 264 pounds," Davenport says.
As Davenport felt himself breaking into another stratosphere of potential, his confidence increased. "I just wanted to be able to dominate. I wanted to go out in every game and dominate," Davenport says of the goals he had entering the 2017 season. Mission accomplished, as Davenport totaled 55 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and 8 quarterback hurries to earn Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Davenport admits he could've never imagined being in this position just a few years ago. But now that it's reality, he intends to do everything in his power to make the most of it. A fan of comics and anime, he's particularly partial to the series My Hero Academia. The plot follows a timid middle schooler named Deku (which translates to "one who can't do anything") as he lives in a world where 80 percent of the population are superheroes. Deku begins the series as one of the few humans without superpowers, but through acts of incredible bravery and self-sacrifice, he eventually obtains a rare power which gives him extreme physical strength. The plot follows him as he learns to wield his newfound power and defend the planet from villains bent on destruction.
"The main character's name is Deku. He's a really relatable person. He always perseveres and strives to be greater than what he is," Davenport says.
Even in the midst of his dominant senior season, Davenport brought a growth mindset to every practice or film session. "He's the guy that comes to the field and says 'Coach me, Coach. How can I get better?' Even after dominant play," Wilson says. "There's no entitlement there at all. He doesn't think he's arrived. The reality is he thinks he has so much more to do to get better."
After going from anonymous recruit to elite NFL prospect, Davenport's driven to max out every last drop of his potential—and inspire others to do the same in the process.
"I know that there are people just like me out there that sometimes need somebody to do it before they can," Davenport says. "This might sound so cliche, but I feel like some people don't necessarily get it or understand it until it's too late—believe in yourself. Trust yourself. Nobody can tell you anything, especially if you put in the work."