Wendell Davis came to Pitt with high expectations for himself.
The son of a former NFL player, Davis didn’t start playing football until middle school, but once he got started, he took to it with a love and a passion and work ethic that belied his lack of experience.
When he came to Pitt as a freshman from Richmond, Virginia in 2018, he wanted to play, and not just eventually. He wanted to play right away.
Davis said so when Pittsburgh Sports Now interviewed him as a prospect in his Richmond gym in 2018.
“What you put into it in the offseason gives you the best chance to show it in fall camp,” Davis said at the time. “Whether I redshirt or not, I just want to give me shot to the coaches so they can see what I can do.”
He ended up redshirting, something he now admits that he needed, even if he was “stubborn about it.” In 2019, his path to a starting linebacker job was still solidly blocked, with a trio of more experienced players ahead of him at Pitt’s middle linebacker spot.
But he saw an opportunity on special teams. There, Davis played in 12 games and made nine tackles. Against No. 15 UCF, he recovered a blocked punt and returned it for a touchdown.
The next week, he blocked a punt of his own against Delaware, cementing his status as one of the team’s top special teams contributors for the season.
But when the 2019 season ended, Davis remained unsatisfied. He also knew there would be opportunity. Starting middle linebacker Saleem Brightwell and Money outside linebacker Kylan Johnson graduated after the 2019 season, leaving two vacant spots in Pitt’s defense.
“At the end of every season, we have meetings with our coaches,” Davis said. “So I pretty much ask Coach [Rob] Harley and Coach Duzz [head coach Pat Narduzzi], ‘What do you want to see out of me to possibly earn that spot?’ So, they gave me some advice, things I could do. So I take notes on that and then look at my game overall to see how could I improve and I that’s really what I focus on coming in, really in spring ball and then into the fall camp.”
Things with the roster also broke Davis’ way. Phil Campbell III was moved to fill Johnson’s spot at outside linebacker. Elias Reynolds transferred, leaving Davis and Chase Pine to battle things out in the middle. Davis knew he had a shot, but going up against a senior, he knew he had to project the same command of the defense and leadership qualities as a fifth-year player, while only in his third.
“Coming in as a young Mike linebacker playing our duties on defense, you could be timid at times as far as like making calls and stuff, so I just wanted to be more vocal,” Davis said. “That’s what they wanted to see out of me, being more vocal and just kind of the rest will take care of itself by playing hard and play with good technique and everything. So, I just want to be more vocal and more of a leader.”
Throughout the team’s offseason and training camp, Davis provided the same traits he showed on special teams a year ago — agility, toughness and a knack for making big plays — but also showed a confidence and poise beyond his years.
“It’s called consistency,” He was just steady. I mean, the guy hasn’t missed a practice, hasn’t missed a beat. He’s been sharp with getting everybody lined up. Just consistent. He knows what’s going on. The first day we came out with gameplan rules as far as what he’s going to do up front and everything. He came out and doesn’t miss a beat. He’s just been consistent.”
Davis actually credited the unusual practice situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic for helping his development. He felt he was ready physically while he was making special teams plays a year ago. The mental part of his game is what needed the work and that’s what he got. He just would have preferred to get it in an in-person setting.
“We got a lot of mental reps, a lot of meetings, a lot of stuff on the whiteboard,” he said. “Stuff like that was good. I think the hardest part of that was just physical reps. All that stuff is good, but if you’re not physically doing it, then you can only go so far. I’m one those people who needs to go out there and physically do something in order to get it done. That’s just how I learn.”
Now that Davis has been anointed Pitt’s starting middle linebacker, he knows that it’s not going to be an easy job to keep. Pine, as Narduzzi pointed out on Monday, “hasn’t stopped.”
His father, Wendell Davis, Sr., knows all about that. He spent just three seasons with the San Diego Chargers before his NFL career ended.
“He was excited for me, but at the same time, he gave me advice as far as like, as hard as it is to get to that spot, it’s even harder to remain there,” the younger Davis said. “So just remain humble and keep working. And that’s what I’m gonna do. Even though I’m a starter Week 1, I’m gonna still keep working the same way I was before that, because anything you can lose at any time.”