Every few years, a Mid-American Conference player appears, seemingly out of the cornfields, and places himself on the NFL draft radar.
In 2003, it was a gargantuan quarterback from Miami (Ohio) named Ben Roethlisberger, who had started only one season in high school. In 2012, lightly recruited, one-time lightweight offensive tackle Eric Fisher surged to the top of draft boards with Central Michigan. The following year, Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack had everyone talking, even though in high school, no one from an FBS program wanted to talk to him.
Davis checks in at No. 69 on ESPN’s #CFBRank Top 100 players for 2016.
“You’re talking about possibly one of the best players ever to play in this league,” WMU coach P.J. Fleck said, “and he’s a two-star, non-recruited player.”
Davis, whose 3,785 career receiving yards make him the FBS’ active leader, is just 403 yards away from breaking the MAC’s career mark. He needs 72 receptions and 15 touchdowns to set league records in those categories, reasonable projections after he averaged 84 receptions and 13.5 touchdown catches the last two seasons.
The 6-foot-3 senior owns 22 career 100-yard receiving performances, including seven straight to end 2015. He caught six or more balls in 11 of 13 games last season and has recorded fewer than four receptions just once since his freshman season in 2013.
“Every time he touched the ball, you kind of held your breath,” said Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, who saw Davis annually while coaching Toledo the last three seasons. “He’s the one guy in that conference that you turn the film on every week and you’re really impressed.
“You see elite talent.”
Ask Davis how he’s doing and, echoing one of Fleck’s many mottos, he replies with, “Elite.” In his case, though, it’s a statement of fact. Fleck said NFL scouts don’t need to see much more from Davis, whom they project anywhere from the first round to the early third. At a time when dozens of players foolishly enter the NFL draft early, Davis, who had a convincing case to go, opted to stay.
He wants to complete his degree, a chief goal for a player who had to clear academic hurdles to get to WMU. But Davis also seeks improvement on the field, specifically with contested catches, the 50-50 balls that NFL receivers simply have to win.
Step 1 occurred in the weight room, where Davis added 12 pounds of muscle this offseason (he wants to play this season at 218-220). He focused on “big-man lifts,” maxing out his hang-clean with five repetitions at 360 pounds.
“He’s a freak,” WMU quarterback Zach Terrell said. “Always has been. But you can definitely see he has gotten a lot stronger. That’s going to be scary for a lot of teams.”
Step 2 resumes in camp, where Fleck and receivers coach Matt Simon will put Davis through more than 100 ball drills, some of which seem plucked from Nickelodeon’s “Double Dare.” They involve lacrosse balls, tennis balls, bricks, bricks taped together, cones and, yes, footballs, but ones weighted down or cut open. Davis must catch, rip away or dodge these items.
“It’s constant distraction,” Fleck said, “doing everything you can to make him feel uncomfortable in every situation possible, so he learns how to perform in very hostile environments and in very small spaces.”
Fleck, a former MAC wide receiver (Northern Illinois), shaped the workout based on his time with the San Francisco 49ers. Some elements come from hockey goaltender drills, which Fleck picked up from the nearby San Jose Sharks. He later applied them while coaching Tampa Bay Buccaneers receivers in 2012.
“He doesn’t hold back at all,” Davis said. “Bands, throwing stuff at me, cones, whatever he can find. Coach Fleck has a ton of energy and he doesn’t wear out, so by the end of the drill, I’m gassed.”
The fatigue is momentary. Davis’ drive might be his defining trait, more than his freakish acceleration in the open field or the versatility, despite his size, to play the slot as well as outside. Buccaneers Pro Bowl wideout Vincent Jackson is the hardest worker Fleck has coached, but, “Corey’s right up there with him.”
“I’ve come from very humble beginnings and I have to work hard, day in and day out, for whatever I have,” said Davis, who experienced poverty while growing up in Chicago’s western suburbs. “Being a diva is something that’s never going to be part of my game. There’s always room for improvement.”
The past provides perspective, but Davis also has a uniquely clear view of the future. His older brother, Titus, starred at wide receiver for Western Michigan’s MAC rival Central Michigan, and now plays for the New York Jets. Titus tells Corey about playing alongside Brandon Marshall, the pro receiver Corey studies most. Fleck has connected Davis with Jackson, and Davis also met Falcons wideout Mohamed Sanu. Their main advice: Be professional about your work.
Named to three preseason national award watch lists (Maxwell, Walter Camp, Biletnikoff), Davis will be the MAC’s most-watched player on a team picked to win its first league title since 1988. Double-teams are coming and expectations are escalating. Terrell, a senior, said Khalil Mack is the only MAC player he has seen with athleticism like Davis has.
“I’m prepared for whatever they want to throw at me,” Davis said. “I embrace it, the hype, the pressure. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen.”