If Davis has his say, Golden Eagle defense will be suffocating

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 9, 2003

HATTIESBURG &045; Rod Davis already has a degree. He’s got a Conerly Trophy. He appeared on the radar of NFL scouts last year as a junior.

The Gulfport native and Southern Miss linebacker mulled over the idea of scrapping his senior season and entering the NFL draft. But he said no to the draft and yes to everything else &045; improving his NFL stock, furthering his education and helping the Golden Eagles reach new heights in the world of college football.

And in a program where strong defense has been as prevalent as casinos on the Gulf Coast, Davis can’t help but smile.

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&uot;Ain’t nothing like going into your senior year,&uot; Davis said. &uot;You know it’s your last chance to put on that black and gold. It’s like fire running in your veins &045; something is burning. It’s just something really exciting for me and the rest of the seniors. This is our last opportunity. We’ll do whatever it takes to get us back to the top.&uot;

As long as he does that, he’ll continue to log more accolades and move up the charts on draft boards everywhere come April. The timing then will be better, more so than back in January when he decided &045; on the same day, coincidentally, as Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning &045; not to leave USM for the NFL.

He chose to stay and got his degree in business management. And he wasn’t satisfied with the NFL Draft committee’s evaluation of him.

&uot;A lot of reasons came in,&uot; Davis said. &uot;I guess I didn’t feel the welcome or the want like I thought I deserved. So I came back to show everybody that I am one of the best defensive players in the country if not the best and lead this team to the promised land, and that’s a championship.&uot;

Davis has already earned plenty enough preseason accolades to warrant attention &045; Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, Preseason All-American, a spot on the Butkus Award and the Bronco Nagurski Award watch lists and rated the No. 1 linebacker in the nation by Lindy’s, Athlon Sports, Phil Steele’s, Street and Smith and The Sporting News College Football Magazine.

But like any other USM defense in the past, Davis won’t be the biggest name on that side of the ball.

&uot;We’re very excited about the group we have returning,&uot; defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. &uot;Rod Davis, Etric Pruitt, Alex Ray &045; all those guys have played a lot of football, and we’ll expect a lot from them. Chemistry so far in camp has been good. Rod is a playmaker, and he leads by example. We’re expecting a lot of great things from him.

&uot;The tradition started well before I got here back in the 1960s. The list goes on and on of great players who have played at this university. I’m just fortunate enough to be the coach on this side of the football. The most important thing is to try to play with great effort. I want them to live up to their expectations.&uot;

Pruitt is another member of the unit that’s got great expectations attached to his name as a free safety. Pruitt was an All-American last year as the USM secondary allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the nation a year ago with six.

He’s also garnered a bucket load of preseason honors, most notably for his outstanding speed and ability to pursue a ball carrier.

&uot;We’re really excited to get in the season and see how our defense is going to be,&uot; Pruitt said. &uot;We did a lot of great things this summer. We’ve got a lot of experience on the line. (Rod and I) kind of push each other. I kind of look at him to get him going, and he looks at me to get me going.&uot;

The biggest surprise so far in camp may be senior cornerback Cory Yates, the 5-10, 181-pound Holly Springs native who enters the season after having two ACL surgeries. He sat out last season and took a medical red-shirt for the second ACL and received a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA.

His junior season was cut short because of injury, and he had ACL problems in preseason camp last year.

&uot;He has really been persistent,&uot; USM head coach Jeff Bower said. &uot;I feel sorry for him just the way things have happened. But he has pushed through it. He has always had a positive attitude. He has maintained his speed, and he might be the fastest guy on our team.&uot;

Said secondary coach Jay Hopson: &uot;It blows my mind. I’m telling you, the good Lord &045; he’s got a gear we just don’t have. He’s had two ACLs, and he’ll still run you a 4.3 40.

He’s getting it out of his mind, he’s playing and I’m going to let him go.&uot;

It’s guys like Yates that may help the Eagles’ defense continue to improve over last year. While it’s an experienced bunch, Davis noted there’s been more veterans on that side of the ball in years past &045; the 2000 team, for example.