TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- Replacing a Freak is hard to do.
They are—both literally and figuratively— big shoes to fill, but the Arizona State coaching staff thinks they have a player who can pull it off.
Over the first seven games of the 2018 season, defensive tackle D.J. Davidson had provided quality depth behind starter Renell Wren, racking up 10 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, and a pair of sacks. But that all came to a painful end when he went down with a serious leg injury early in the game against USC on Oct. 27.
"Pain. I felt it, but I could walk a little bit,” Davidson remembered. “I didn't know how long it's going to take to get back. I didn't know if it was going to be (season) ending, because my knee kinda went sideways.”
It turned out to be his fibula, and while it did in fact end his season, he was relieved that the injury was not more serious.
“Once they told me that it was going to take about three months,” said Davidson, “I was really happy to hear that because I knew I was going to be able to come back.”
The healing and recovery stretched into ASU’s spring practices, sidelining Davidson and making an already thin position group even thinner. At times, there were just a handful of healthy defensive linemen available for practice.
“There were like three of four of them, and they were working their asses off,” Davidson said. “I just wished I could've been out there to help the team and get better and contribute. I knew that last year I was working up to a position that could contribute to the team. Sitting on the sideline sucks.”
During his rehab, Davidson prayed for his recovery and for God to keep his mind clear. His wife helped keep his spirits up and made sure he stayed as active as he could. But with just one healthy leg, it was a challenge.
“When he got hurt against USC, I was really concerned because he's naturally a big guy and it's easy to gain weight,” said ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales.
Davidson did add bad weight, making his road back to the field a little steeper. Once his leg was ready, he took an aggressive approach during the team’s summer conditioning program.
“Coach Joe (Connolly) and all the offseason work and running, all that stuff helped motivate me,” said Davidson.
The hard work paid off.
“I'm really excited that he lost the weight,” Gonzales said. “He had to do a little extra work, and he lost 25 pounds, which is phenomenal. It's helped with his quickness.”
Even though he’s trimmed down, Davidson still presents an intimidating figure at 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds. That combination of size and improved quickness has helped him thrive under new defensive line coach Jamar Cain, a coach known for his sharp attention to detail.
"He doesn't want us to be complacent with anything, with our mindset, with our tempo, with our technique,” said Davidson. “He's really taught me the stab, slap, stab, the dip, stab, hump 'em over. He's so technically sound, he just wants us to do that every time. It's helped my game a lot. I need him to coach me. I need him to be hard on me. I need him to push me to my limits."
Pushing to and exceeding those limits will be crucial if Davidson is going to be ASU’s next Freak.
Heading into the 2018 season, Wren was named to Bruce Feldman’s annual Freaks List, which highlights the best all-around athletes in college football. Wren's rare blend of size, strength, and quickness helped solidify the front of the ASU defense, and it made him a fourth round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals this past April.
Seeing Wren's success up close provided Davidson with a valuable blueprint to follow.
"I really learned a lot from him,” Davidson said of Wren. “Being mentally tough to push through things. There were times he was so tired but he pushed through it. He was physically a monster. His size, his strength. That's what I want to get up to. I want to get my strength up to what his was. I want to get my size up to his and even bigger than that. The way he worked and pushed himself, it was awesome. Seeing him as a man out there running around and running to the ball. I picked up on that. Give my all between the whistles."
It’s a high standard and a tough act to follow, but it's one that Gonzales thinks Davidson can pull off.
"He's a little big better naturally at some of the games and block reactions,” Gonzales said. “Renell was so brute strong, he could just annihilate a center. D.J. can dominate a center, probably not quite the same way as Renell, different styles. But we can do more movement and more games with D.J. up front. He's a really natural football player. He knows to react to the ball. Schematically, we can do some different things. Don't get me wrong. Replacing Renell Wren is no easy task, but I'm glad we have D.J."
Through the first two weeks of fall camp, Davidson has solidified his hold as the starter at nose tackle. Going into his second year in Gonzales’ 3-3-5 scheme, Davidson has a firmer grasp of the defense, but the way that the defense utilizes the nose tackle keeps him from getting complacent.
"It's a little challenging,” Davidson said. “It's a lot of movement. It pushes my ability and my body to be quicker and be faster. Being underneath (Gonzales), with his knowledge of the game, with his schemes, with the people coming and D-linemen dropping, it's fun. It's not consistently the same thing to eat up space and try to get through the gap. You're moving around all the time. You get to fly around and have fun."
A healthy and productive Davidson in the middle would be a major boost for the ASU defense.
The Sun Devils field quality and depth at linebacker and in the secondary, leaving the defensive line with the most questions to answer heading into the 2019 season. In addition to Davidson replacing Wren, the team is looking for a starter at one end spot opposite Jermayne Lole, but despite some nagging injuries to the group, Davidson feels progress is being made.
"With the technique that Coach Cain comes in here with, with the willingness that everyone wants to be out here to practice, that's what we excel at," Davidson said. "We're out here with a ton of energy getting off the ball and flying around. We're having fun as a D-line."
Another challenge for the defensive line will be developing depth behind the starting trio. One of Cain’s core beliefs is that a defensive line needs to maintain a productive rotation, and he hopes to get eight to nine players involved on game day.
"Rotations are going to be very impactful," Davidson said. "When people are getting tired, you can get fresh legs right in there. There's going to be no drop off from the ones to the twos to the threes. That's a big part of rotations. You have a fresh D-line out there the whole time. Once you're out there, you're a one. It's how Coach Herm preaches and how Coach Cain preaches and how Coach Gonzales preaches. When you're on the field, you got to play like a starter, you got to act like a starter, you have to act like a professional."
Davidson has focused much of his work in camp to furthering his understanding of the playbook. He's also been honing his fundamentals, understanding that his coaches are relying on him to play a major role in 2019.
"I think his role is going to be big,” Gonzales said. “He's really athletic up front, and he gives us a dynamic that we can do different things that we weren't able to do previously. I expect a big year from D.J."
Davidson expects one too.
“I have a lot of potential, and I have to make sure that I use it to the best of my ability."