Gabriel Davis: Hell-Bent for Greatness

Nicholson Fieldhouse, UCF's indoor football facility, is nearly empty.
But, over near the east sideline, several of the Knights' student managers have set up the Jugs passing machine—and it's aiming footballs at high speeds on a line 10 yards away toward Gabriel Davis.
"Thwack" is the sound as the Jugs fires pigskins time after time.
Sometimes Davis stands squarely in front of the onrushing balls, using two hands to catch them before they would otherwise hit him in the face. Sometimes he stands a bit to one side and reaches into the throwing lane to snatch the football. Sometimes one of his teammates—half serious and half clowning—waves his hands in front of Davis to distract him.
This is hardly a once-in-a-while exercise for Davis, UCF's star junior wide receiver.
It happens virtually every day.
He does it on Tuesdays, he does it on Thursdays.
He does it in August and September. He does it in February and March.
He used to catch maybe 150 balls in this manner regularly, but now he has bumped it up to 230 to 250. He does it Tuesday through Friday during the season--and that's often after a normal two-hour practice session.
The balls generally come at him so quickly there is little time to do anything but react and stab at it—and Davis seldom misses.
An argument could be made that, as accomplished as Davis is at his pass-catching craft, it's the other Knight receivers who should be doing this and not him.
But it's one of the things that has set him apart—not only on the UCF roster, but in the American Athletic Conference and anywhere else college football devotees have seen him play.
UCF wide receivers coach Darrell Wyatt knew he had someone special on his hands when he arrived after Davis' rookie campaign (the Knights finished 13-0 in 2017).
"He exhibited a rare maturity from day one. I've been doing this for a long time and I've been around about three kids that just get it—and he gets it," says Wyatt.
"What does that mean? When you tell him something, he can take it from the classroom to the practice field and from the practice field to game day. He just gets it.
"If you practice for an hour, he's going to stay out there 20 minutes extra. If you look at film for 30 minutes, he's going to come back and watch 20 more minutes.
"He always does more. His skills and his ability double because of that."
The quiet in Nicholson Fieldhouse is interrupted every four or five seconds by the explosion of a football in Davis' direction.
"Thwack . . . . thwack . . . thwack."
Gabe Davis takes nothing for granted.
UCF's lanky wideout still remembers all the times and all the people who doubted him.
That seems strange, given Davis' success on the football field at the major-college level, but there were plenty of days not so long ago when his ability to do the things he now does routinely was openly questioned.
They did not think he was fast enough.
They did not think he was tough enough.
They did not think he could play receiver.
They did not think he could be a starter at that position at Sanford High School.
Eventually a good high school player? Okay, sure.
But was Davis really good enough to play big-time college football? Maybe.
And all those doubters absolutely fueled Davis—and do to this day—even if he has long since stopped worrying about who any of them were or are. It's all part of the mindset he has developed to motivate himself.
Every time Davis makes a play, he thinks back to when someone suggested he couldn't.
A less confident individual might prefer to keep those memories to himself. Yet Davis isn't hesitant to talk about those moments.
It's as if, with every catch and every touchdown, he's proven another doubter wrong.
Says Wyatt, "You meet people in life, if you want to motivate them, tell them they can't do something.
"So many people told him that he couldn't do it or that he was limited or that he couldn't overcome their perception.
"He does have a chip on his shoulder.
"And it's a good thing."
At 6-3 and around 212 pounds, Davis possesses the physical attributes to make life frustrating for opposing defensive backs.
Says veteran UCF safety Richie Grant, who has spent more than his share of time shadowing Davis on the practice field, "He knows how to maximize his strengths.
"He's going to try to beat you, no matter what it is, even off the field. He's just a very competitive guy.
"And he's very mature. He knows when to be serious--there's a time to play and a time to work.
"And he's been the same guy ever since he got here."
Davis is not the fastest of the Knights' receivers, yet he has worked exceedingly hard at developing the skills to use his body to create separation and put himself in position to make plays—big plays.
"He's a guy who can do a little bit of everything," says Wyatt. "He's not a scheme-dependent player. He could flourish in any scheme.
"He has put on weight since he walked in the door, he's put on strength, added power—and I think he's gotten faster."
Davis says he models himself, to some degree, after longtime Arizona Cardinal great Larry Fitzgerald.
"I love Larry Fitzgerald, ever since I was nine years old, watching him take a slant to the house and winning the Super Bowl," he says.
"He's a big physical guy, maybe not as fast as some others but he really knows the game. He's a blocking guy, he has strong hands. That's what I try to do."
Stop by the UCF football offices in off-hours and Davis is likely to be there.
"His plan is to beat the quarterbacks into their meeting room," says UCF head coach Josh Heupel.
Davis spends hours studying video of opposing defenses, looking for the little edge that may make the difference on a play or two on Saturday. He's looking for tendencies. He's looking for anything that will provide him even a razor-thin advantage.
Davis is a student of the game—and certainly a student of wide receiver play. Ask him about the top names among receivers at the collegiate or professional level and he can tell you what they do well and what he takes from their catalogues.
"We spend a tremendous amount of time watching film together," says Wyatt. "Opponents, professional receivers, other collegiate receivers. We started that when he first got here. I've got this library of cut-ups of receivers--Hall of Famers, All-Americans, Biletnikoff Award winners. And he just dives in—it's not by accident.
"I asked him, 'Who are the guys people think are the great receivers in the country? Let's pull 'em up, let's watch 'em. Let's see if we can find something in their games that we can incorporate in your game.'
"He'll come in and say, 'Coach Wyatt, I saw (Los Angeles Chargers receiver) Keenan Allen run this route.' Or 'Did you see OBJ (Odell Beckham Jr. of the Cleveland Browns) run this route? (Oklahoma receiver) CeeDee Lamb . . . (Alabama receiver) Jerry Jeudy . . . we put all that in the package and he tries to be the best version of himself."
Davis even kids that he can never simply watch a football game on a casual basis any longer because he quickly finds himself analyzing coverages and scrutinizing the moves and strategies of receivers.
"I probably catch maybe 1,000 balls a week," Davis says. "And then I think about how all these guys—even pros like Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham--do that, too, and then sometimes you catch maybe three balls in a game."
Davis spends little time trying to be a spokesman for the UCF team. Yet, even as an underclassman, he knows that comes with the territory when you play well and your team is successful.
Davis is far more interested in doing his talking based on the way he does his job—both on and off the field. That means saying less and showing by example more. When your team's best player probably is your team's hardest worker, it rubs off—and it's hard to miss for other UCF players.
Davis' unspoken message? "Want to go where I'm going? Think about following my lead."
Davis against East Carolina on Saturday night accomplished something no UCF player had done since 2002—rack up 100 or more receiving yards in a fourth straight game (he had 164 versus the Pirates). The all-time UCF record is five in a row by Ted Wilson in the 1985 season.
Here are other numerical highlights of Davis' junior campaign in 2019:
--15 plays good for 20 or more yards (Tre Nixon is next with eight)
--a 17.7-yard average per reception, including a 28.2-yard mark on his 10 TD catches
--grabs good for 37 yards vs. Florida A&M, 45 and 32 vs. Florida Atlantic, 38 vs. Stanford, 65 and 28 vs. Pitt, 73 vs. Connecticut, 29 and 27 vs. Cincinnati, 33 and 33 vs. East Carolina
"We try to make big plays when we can," he says.
No player in the country has caught more TD passes than his 10 (he's tied with Lamb, Omar Bayless of Arkansas State and Isaiah Hodgins of Oregon State). Davis currently ranks fourth nationally in receiving yards and receiving yards per game (119.0)—leading the league in both categories. He was a second-team all-AAC receiver as a sophomore in 2018 (when he caught 53 balls for 815 yards and seven scores).
UCF's defeat at Cincinnati couldn't overshadow his 13-catch effort--two more grabs than any other AAC player has made in a single game in 2019. Davis is one of two AAC players this year to catch three TD passes in a game (versus Connecticut). He leads the AAC with his four 100-yard efforts in receiving yards. Davis has 38 more receiving yards than any other AAC player.
And he's doing all this with the help of a true freshman quarterback (Dillon Gabriel) who has only been on campus since January and is still learning the nuances of how Davis likes to operate. Davis is helping his young quarterback rank second nationally in average yards per completion at 16.53 (behind only Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts at 18.19). Gabriel is one of only a dozen Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks (and the only freshman) to throw for 2,000 yards so far in 2019—and Davis has been on the receiving end of 833 of those.
Davis excelled in UCF's surprisingly easy September home victory over Stanford based on his success in one-on-one matchups with Cardinal cornerback Paulson Adebo, who led the country in passes defended in 2018 and is projected by many as a potential first-round NFL draft choice. A double move created an opening that resulted in one 38-yard TD play (the first allowed by Adebo all year) for Davis--after an earlier 41-yard gain on a similar stutter-step maneuver ended with one of Davis' cleats out of bounds.
He started the first game of his freshman season in Orlando in 2017 and hasn't been out of the UCF lineup since. Meanwhile, his Knights have lost only a combined three games in his three seasons. Even though two of those came in a three-week period in the first half of the 2019 campaign, Davis never lost focus (he combined for 23 receptions in those two defeats). His last four games have featured 37 catches combined (604 yards).
He adds, "(former NBA all-star) Kobe Bryant always says, 'Get over yourself. When bad things happen, you just have to keep working.'"
Davis grew up in Sanford, 25 minutes northwest of the UCF campus. He considered Florida International for a period of time, then quickly settled on UCF as the place he wanted to play.
"I could tell being around the guys it was going to be something special," he says.
"I remember watching (former UCF All-America linebacker and current Seattle Seahawk player) Shaquem Griffin get up in front of a players-only meeting.
"I was blessed to have great examples like that."
Davis also loves the manner in which his hometown has embraced Knight Nation, thanks in part to Davis and fellow Sanford Seminole High School product Bam Moore signing with the Knights.
"It's been awesome," Davis says. "I did not even think anything about UCF when I was little. I watched the (Florida) Gators.
"But now you see UCF stuff all the time around Sanford—and you never saw that before."
UCF's brand as "Orlando's Hometown Team" has flourished with the recent Knight success.
Gabriel Davis has been right in the middle of all of it.
And he's not done yet.