ATHENS – The moment that Aaron Davis realized he could make it at Georgia came during the spring of his first year. He walked into a meeting and looked on the board, where coaches posted the depth chart.
He had arrived at Georgia as a pure walk-on. The defensive coordinator didn’t know the name of the skinny cornerback from Locust Grove. But then the coaching staff changed, and Davis made his move.
“As soon as I started to see my name move up that depth chart going into the meetings was probably when I saw that happening,” Davis said.
On Saturday, Davis will play his final home game of an improbable Georgia football career. He will start his 41st game, the most by a non-kicker who walked on in 35 years.
Nate Taylor started 45 games after arriving on campus as a walk-on linebacker in 1977. That’s believed to be the most starts ever for a non-kicker walk-on. (Billy Bennett was Georgia’s starting kicker in 49 games.)
Davis could equal Taylor’s record if Georgia makes it to the national championship game. Failing that, Davis’ career still has to rank among the most successful for a walk-on in program history.
It’s a classic case of a player who slipped through the recruiting cracks because of an injury: Davis tore his knee as a junior and senior at Luella High School, after he had started receiving interest from some ACC and SEC programs. Left without any good offers, he was admitted to UGA on a HOPE scholarship in 2013 – he had a 4.5 GPA in high school – and then went the walk-on route on the football team that fall.
Georgia had a very young secondary that ended up struggling mightily that season. Little did anyone know that a future four-year starter was anonymously running on scout team. When defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and secondary coach Scott Lakatos left, they were replaced in both roles by Jeremy Pruitt, who immediately saw something in the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder. By the spring game, Davis was working with the first team.
“That was probably the moment I realized I had a chance to play and contribute to the season,” Davis said.
Davis went on to make a spectacular debut: When Georgia beat Clemson in the 2014 season opener, Davis had an interception. That game still goes down as the most memorable moment in his career.
“Night game. Huge game. Stadium was unbelievable, it felt like an earthquake, the ground was shaking out there,” Davis said. “That was probably my favorite moment, so far.”
As his career went on, Davis proved to be a versatile and dependable player. He has started at practically every position in the secondary: cornerback, safety and nickel back. He was put on scholarship early in his career, and paying his own way wasn’t an issue after that. He’s been considered a scholarship player for a while now.
Booksmarts evidently do sometimes translate to football smarts: Davis, who completed is bachelor’s degree after the 2016 football season, is pursuing a master’s in computer systems engineering.
“Aaron’s a very smart guy. That was my first impression, ‘This guy knows everything, where everybody needs to be,’ ” said safety J.R. Reed, who joined the team the summer of 2016. “That’s what makes Aaron so great.”
Davis is third on the team in tackles this year, with 35, giving him 176 for his career. After last season, degree in hand, he thought about leaving the team, either to enter the NFL draft or just go into the real world. Asked what he would be doing now if he had chosen the latter, Davis smiled and said, “If I could answer that I probably would be telling people’s futures around here, trying to be Miss Cleo or something.”
Georgia has a page in its media guide devoted just to walk-ons who “make good at UGA.” Taylor and Bennett are in there. So is Verron Haynes, who caught the famous Hobnail Boot pass in 2001. There’s also Richard Tardits, who ended his career as Georgia’s all-time sack leader. And Cory Phillips, who caught four touchdown passes against Kentucky in 2000. And Mike Fisher, a starter on the 1980 national championship team.
Next year’s media guide will have to make room for Davis, the fate of his final team yet to be decided, but a career fulfilled either way.