UK walk-on Davis will get first start Saturday

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 4, 2009 

There was no Hollywood moment.

Rich Brooks did not call Marcus Davis into his office, throw his arm around the walk-on's shoulders and say, 'Son, you are our starter.'

Sure, as Kentucky began to put in its game plan for the 2009 season opener, Davis noticed he was getting the practice repetitions with the first team offense at center.

But he wasn't taking anything for granted.

In Cincinnati, Miles and Eugenia Davis anxiously waited for word from the youngest of their three children. Had Marcus won the starting position for the Miami (Ohio) game that became available when UK's regular center, Jorge Gonzalez, was suspended?

"He never called us to let us know," Miles Davis said.

By Monday, when UK released its depth chart for the first game of 2009, Miles was about to burst with curiosity. It sent him combing Wildcats sports sites on the Internet in search for information.

When he found the depth chart, his eyes headed straight for the center position. Right there on the top line was his answer: No. 77 Marcus Davis, 6-1, 287, Jr-1L.

"My parents called and told me. Really, that's how I found out I was No. 1," Marcus Davis said Wednesday with a laugh.

This summer, the college sports experience in Kentucky hasn't been especially wholesome. UK's Davis getting to make his first career start Saturday in Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium is a story all but exploding with "feel good."

It's hardly unprecedented for a walk-on to draw a starting assignment for an SEC football team.

Yet it's rare enough to be notable when it happens.

At traditional Northern Kentucky high school football power Boone County, Marcus Davis was, at 6-foot-1, an undersized offensive tackle.

"He was one of the few kids we've ever had to start as a sophomore, and he is the best offensive linemen we've had," said Boone Coach Rick Thompson.

Louisville, Miami (Ohio) and UK all gave Davis long looks, but never pulled the trigger on a scholarship offer.

"It was the height thing," Thompson said. "A lot of schools told us they did not have a place for a 6-1 lineman."

No one could question Davis' football genes His mom's sister, Carol, has a son who made a pretty good name for himself toting a football.

Shaun Alexander won Mr. Football honors at Boone County, became a star at Alabama and an NFL MVP with Seattle.

"We talk all the time," Marcus says of his famous cousin. "He's always been a great role model for me."

For his own college future, Davis had all but decided to accept a scholarship from Wofford of the Football Championship Subdivision.

But Ron Caragher, then a Kentucky assistant and now the head coach at San Diego, made a passionate plea for the lineman to walk-on in Lexington.

"Ron Caragher really wanted Marcus," says Miles Davis. "He really thought Marcus could play for UK in the SEC. And he convinced us that he would get a fair chance even as a walk-on."

For many walk-ons, it doesn't take long to get discouraged from the role of practice tackling dummies for the "real" players.

A journalism major ( Marcus aspires to work at ESPN) with an academic scholarship at Kentucky, Davis has stuck it out with the Wildcats football program for four long years.

"It really hasn't been too bad," Davis said. "I think everybody, whether you're on scholarship or not, has bad days and discouraging days. But I wouldn't have wanted to play football at any other school or in any other conference."

When UK announced early in the pre-season that returning center Gonzalez was suspended for this year's first game, Davis suddenly found himself in the running to start the season opener. His competition was Matt Smith, a promising redshirt freshman from St. Xavier.

Brooks said Monday the competition came down to errors — or the lack of them.

"Marcus made far fewer mistakes," Brooks said. "He's been in the program quite a while, obviously, and that's a real advantage to him."

Even if it is only for one game (Gonzalez will return for the Louisville contest), you could not pick a better scenario for Davis to make a start.

Cincinnati is just across the Ohio River from Boone County. Paul Brown Stadium is the home of the NFL team he rooted for as a kid.

"We used to go down to training camp in Georgetown, and I'd get wrist bands off guys like Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott," Davis says of the former Bengals wide receivers.

As of Wednesday, Davis said he was more pumped than nervous.

"I'm just excited about trying to take advantage of this opportunity," he said. "To get to start a game so close to home in the stadium of the team I rooted for, it's unbelievable."

For the walk-on who hung around and earned a starting nod, high noon Saturday will be the Hollywood moment.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or at mstory@herald-leader.com

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