- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Way back before Chris Davis had even dreamed about making the play of the year in college football (maybe the play of the decade), his head coach knew how important Davis would be to this Auburn team.
“One of the keys to our season is Chris Davis staying healthy because of all the different ways he can impact our team,” Auburn’s Gus Malzahn said.
Malzahn made those comments back in late July, just weeks before the start of preseason practice.
Not even he knew how prophetic he would be.
Davis’ improbable 109-yard touchdown return of a missed field goal to beat Alabama is just a part of the story. He’s been the Tigers’ best cover cornerback. He leads them in total tackles (69) and pass breakups (14) and also leads the SEC in punt return average (20.1 yards per game), which includes an 85-yard touchdown against Tennessee.
“He’s not a guy of many words, but he’s our captain for a reason,” Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “He goes out there and leads by example. And when it comes to needing a big play to be made, you know No. 11 is the guy who will make that play.”
Perhaps the best perspective on what Davis has meant can be traced to a conversation after the season among Malzahn and all three of the Tigers’ coordinators. They were discussing the different team awards, and Davis’ name kept popping up in every category.
“We didn’t know whether to give him most valuable player, most valuable special teams player or most valuable defensive player,” said Ellis Johnson, Auburn’s defensive coordinator.
“He made so many big plays. If you take Chris Davis out, does somebody make those plays? I don’t think they make all of them. The play at the end of the Alabama game was one of them, but he made a lot of them. He matched up most of the time on the best receiver, and he’s given up some balls, too, but he can play with anybody in the country one-on-one and has shown that most of the time.”
Davis’ plight since arriving on the Plains, in a lot of ways, has mirrored Auburn’s incredible turnaround this season. Coming out of Birmingham, Ala., he wasn’t very highly recruited and has had an injury-plagued career.
In fact, he suffered a high ankle sprain on the opening kickoff of the 2011 BCS National Championship win over Oregon and missed the rest of the game. Even this season, he missed the Mississippi State and LSU games with an ankle injury.
“Growing up, this is what I dreamed of, to be in these types of situations,” Davis said. “I had my ups and downs here, fighting injuries every year, but I never gave up. That’s kind of how we came into this season because we were going to face adversity.
“We stuck together through it all, and this is a season to remember, especially coming off last year. It’s one of the biggest turnarounds in college football, and now we’re trying to finish it off with this game.”
Davis, a senior, became a household name following his stunning touchdown return against Alabama. He jokes that he can’t get away from that play no matter how hard he tries. When he returned to class that next week at Auburn, he received a standing ovation.
“That was one play, one I’ll always remember, but we have more to do,” Davis said.
19hTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney