Cal Bears

2020 NFL Draft: How Ashtyn Davis went from walk-on to Cal star safety

2020 NFL Draft: How Ashtyn Davis went from walk-on to Cal star safety

This isn’t how it was supposed to go for Ashtyn Davis. 

He was supposed to show off his skills at the Senior Bowl and have his track speed flourish at the NFL Scouting Combine, having him rise up draft boards. A groin injury held him out of both showcases. The former Cal safety was then supposed to impress more scouts at his pro day and fly across the county while meeting with multiple teams. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic stopped that from happening. 

But nothing throughout Davis’ football career has gone as expected. This is just another obstacle after Davis took down numerous road blocks to become a star in Berkeley, and now he is expected to be selected in the first three rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft. Instead of dwelling, Davis is looking at the big picture.

“With this whole coronavirus, my problems are really small compared to some people,” Davis said last week in a phone conversation with NBC Sports Bay Area. “There’s some people dying from this. Just having to work and do my meetings from home is a pretty small problem to have. I try to keep that in perspective and just look forward to the good things I got.”

While the sports world is calling a different audible every day as we react to the pandemic, Davis’ story starts with a bold move while running track during his senior year of high school. 

Hurdling his obstacles 

Davis starred on the Cal track team and was a four-time All-American. (Photo via Kirby Lee/USATSI)

Ashtyn Davis wasn’t recruited out of high school, and that’s saying it lightly. He was a zero-star recruit who still dreamed of playing college football. Davis played running back, receiver, defensive back and returned kicks at Santa Cruz High School. He didn't become attractive to schools until he started running track. 

“I’d say my senior year of high school was the first year I took track seriously,” Davis said. “I had no football offers, and I wanted to get somewhere to continue playing football and I was slowly realizing that track might be the only way that was gonna get done, so that’s when I started to take it serious in my senior year of high school and was fortunate enough to make it to the state meet.” 

Prior to the 2014 CIF State Track and Field Championships, Davis already was the 110-meter high hurdles champion for the Central Coast Section. The state meet was something else, featuring the best of the best in a sport he still was fairly new to. He placed fifth in the entire state for both the 110-meter high hurdles and 300-meter hurdles. Davis' ability to sell himself mostly helped him catch the attention of perspective colleges, though. 

Davis’ track coach, Bob Sanders, took him to every person associated with a college at the state track meet and made Davis introduce himself, give his times and say that he would love an opportunity to walk on to their team. It worked, too. 

He came away with offers from Cal Poly, UCSB, Washington and Cal. Washington was too expensive with out-of-state tuition, UCSB didn’t have a football team and some of Ashtyn’s times were faster than the records at Cal Poly. Davis landed on Cal after crossing the other three off his list

“I decided I wanted to go to Cal and compete with the best people I could,” Davis said.

That was just the start of it, though.

From walk-on to star safety

Davis had seven interceptions at Cal and returned one back for a touchdown. (Photo via Jeff Chiu/AP)

Turning into a track star at Cal was relatively easy for Davis. He joined his high school track team as a junior to be with his friends and football teammates more, but Davis became a four-time All-American and Pac-12 champion in Berkeley. His 13.50 time in the 110-meter hurdles is the third-fastest in Cal history.

Making his way back to the football field required more persistence.

Davis found out Cal's assistant athletic director, Andrew McGraw, went to the same high school as him. After sending multiple emails, Davis finally talked to whoever he could with the football program. That was the first step in becoming the coveted prospect he is today. 

“I gave them an all offense tape and I was given a defense jersey, and I guess the rest is history there,” Davis said. “Basically they said, ‘We got some spots on defense we can fill.' So I was like, ‘Yeah sure, I’ll do whatever.’ And here we are.”

It wasn’t until his third year on campus that Davis actually suited up for a football game. He redshirted as a walk-on in 2015 and played in 12 games in his freshman year, starting the final three at cornerback. Cal bringing in a new coaching staff under head coach Justin Wilcox after the 2016 season was a major turning point for Davis, especially with Gerald Alexander being named the school’s defensive backs coach.

Alexander starred at safety for Boise State and was a second-round pick by the Detroit Lions in the 2007 NFL Draft. He played five seasons in the NFL, and Davis credits him with everything he knows about playing safety. 

“He taught me how to watch film, taught me scheme, taught me pretty much everything I know about safety and molded me into the player I am right now,” Davis said. “He got me to fall in love with the mental aspect a lot.”

Davis flourished his final two years under Alexander, who was hired as the Miami Dolphins’ defensive backs coach in January. Over his junior and senior seasons, Davis totaled 108 tackles, six interceptions, nine passes defensed, three fumble recoveries and forced a fumble. With his speed, range, versatility and physicality at 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds, Davis now is a muscled missile zeroing in on his target. 

This all brings us to the moment of truth, where Davis' patience and hard work is supposed to pay off. In just over two weeks, the former walk-on is headed to the NFL. 

Always proving himself

Davis met with teams at the NFL Scouting Combine but was unable to performa on-field drills. (Photo via Trevor Ruszkowski/USATSI)

Davis planned to return to Santa Cruz after his pro day last month, however, his grandfather lives on his parents’ property and he wanted to be cognizant about possibly getting him sick. He trains out of Proactive Sports in Santa Ana, Calif., but Davis is finding creative ways to stay in shape. Davis still is regularly attending his regular physical therapy sessions, though everything else is far from regular. 

“Me and a couple buddies from college and two of my friends from high school, we group text and then hop on FaceTime and kind of hold each other accountable,” Davis said. “We all bring some form of workout to the table and get after it as often as possible.”

Davis said he has snuck onto local fields to get position work in as much as he can, and he already has been kicked off a few times. 

Video has been the basis of Davis' workout creativity, as well as his pre-draft process. This year’s draft will proceed in a fully virtual format, which is exactly how NFL teams have met with prospects while social distancing, rather than face-to-face. He has spoken with the 49ers, the same team he idolized as a child. 

Davis grew up with half of his family rooting for the Raiders and the other half rooting for the 49ers. He’d be a welcome addition for either team in the draft, even after the Raiders signed safeties Jeff Heath and Damarious Randall this offseason and the 49ers re-signed Jimmie Ward.

The two-time All-Pac-12 safety spoke over the phone with 49ers general manager John Lynch, who was a nine-time Pro Bowl safety himself. Davis called Lynch a “cool dude” and said their conversation was more general than position specific. When asked if he has envisioned himself in a 49ers jersey running through the tunnel at Levi’s Stadium, it was obvious Davis now is much more than a childhood fan. His Berkeley education came out clear as day. 

“I’m thinking about money situations, state income taxes in California and things like that,” Davis said. “It’s definitely crossed my mind before, but like you said, like I’ve said, I’ll be happy wherever I go. I can’t wait to get settled in wherever my new home is and just get to work.”

Video conferences vary by team. Some use Zoom, some use FaceTime and some use Microsoft Teams. Each has a different approach. Certain teams have played Davis’ mistakes to see how he can correct his film and understand what went wrong, while others have shown his big plays to see how he saw the game in that moment. Teams have also installed a defense, explained it and asked Davis to quickly recite it back to see how fast he can retain information. 

“They kind of pick apart your mental side and figure out what you know,” Davis said. “And fortunately for me, that’s one of my strengths so I enjoy doing that.” 

[RELATED: NBC Sports Bay Area's 2020 NFL Mock Draft]

Throughout these conversations and video conferences, Davis is staying true to himself. He uses the word “genuine” even though he’s selling himself to perspective employers. His main selling points on the field are his knowledge, versatility and extremely high ceiling. 

“I’ve been playing the position for only like two-and-a-half years,” Davis says. “I feel like my best football is ahead of me. I think that’s the best thing I can say about myself.” 

At 23 years old, Davis has taken an unconventional path to the NFL, just like he always has on the gridiron. His best days truly are ahead of him, on and off the field. This story has only just begun. 

Maybe this is exactly how it was supposed to happen.

Darren Baker, Dusty's son, donates 100 meals for coronavirus relief


Darren Baker, Dusty's son, donates 100 meals for coronavirus relief

Dusty Baker always has been one of the most respected people in baseball, both on and off the field. His son, Darren, already is following in his footsteps. 

Darren, a second baseman at Cal, announced Tuesday that he donated 100 meals to Feeding America to help families who are struggling financially during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Darren first became famous at just 3 years old in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series when J.T. Snow swooped up the young bat boy at home plate after scoring on a Kenny Lofton triple to give San Francisco a 10-4 lead over the Anaheim Angels. Now 21, he stars for the Cal baseball team. 

Baker hit .306 and was a perfect 21-for-21 on stolen base attempts as a sophomore when he made the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team. He started off slow this year, but finished his junior season batting .286 before Cal's season was canceled after only 16 games. Before the season ended, though, he did lead Cal in hits (18) and runs scored (15). 

Going into his junior season, many saw Baker as a rising draft prospect. He really impressed at the plate this summer in the Cape Cod League, is one of the best defensive infielders in the country and his speed can change games. Even more important, he's a leader as displayed with his latest act of kindness. 

[RELATED: Darren Baker writes his own story at Cal after early fame]

"He’s a big-time leader," Cal manager Mike Neu said to NBC Sports Bay Area in February. "Obviously his playing experience here, his background with who he’s learned from -- not just his dad but the big leaguers he’s been around, I mean it just automatically gives him so much of a foundation for him and for our whole team.

"He’s a leader and he’s been great in that role."

2020 NFL Draft offers 49ers potential replacements for Jimmie Ward

2020 NFL Draft offers 49ers potential replacements for Jimmie Ward

If Jimmie Ward does not return to the 49ers, the club can be expected to plug in a younger, less-expensive player to replace him.

It could be Tarvarius Moore, who is back at his natural position of free safety after spending his rookie season of 2018 learning the craft of cornerback.

But the 49ers could also be expected to add to their depth and competition with the selection of a safety in the 2020 NFL Draft.

The 49ers own the No. 31 overall pick in the draft. After that, they do not have another selection until the fifth round. Here are some of their options, whether they keep their first-round pick or can move back to obtain selections on Day 2:

Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota

Do not let his size fool you. At 5-foot-9, 203 pounds, Antoine Winfield Jr. has some limitations. But he has the instincts, smarts and playmaking ability to make up for his, um, shortcomings.

“I think versatility is my best attribute,” Winfield said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I can pretty much play anywhere. Also, create takeaways. That’s my goal, to create takeaways for my team and that gives us the best opportunity to win. I’m going to do everything in my power to do that.”

He had seven interceptions last season before declaring for the draft.

Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne

Kyle Dugger (6-1, 217) is a small-college player who continues to attract a lot of attention as a possible pick late in the first round or the second round. The 49ers have gone to having their safeties become more interchangeable, and Dugger has the ability to play center field or close to the line of scrimmage.

What does not get talked about as much?

“Probably my intelligence and my hunger for the game, my hunger to be a great player,” he said at the combine. “I feel that’s something that’s not been said too much."

[RELATED: Why 49ers might not be able to sign Ward to long-term deal]

Ashtyn Davis, California

Ashtyn Davis (6-1, 202) set the Cal record in the 60-meter hurdles during the indoor track season. He was the Pac-12 champion in the 110 hurdles. His athleticism is obvious, as the Santa Cruz native proved on Instagram when he took a leap off a cliff into the Pacific Ocean.

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Ashtyn Davis (@ashtyndavis) on

“I've played corner, I've played nickel, even (linebacker) in a couple of packages and, obviously safety,” he said. “So I think that I'm comfortable everywhere on the field. But I think that my deep defense is my best attribute.”

Davis had six interceptions over his final two college seasons.