Ashtyn Davis had special dispensation earlier this year from the Cal coaches to miss the team’s Spring Game. A redshirt junior safety on the football team, as well as one of the top collegiate hurdlers in the nation, Davis worked out a schedule with the football coaches that would allow him to compete in a track meet that day.
But Davis already had a time in the 110-meter hurdles that would qualify for the regional meet, and someone else on the track and field team could run his leg in the 4 x 100-meter relay, so Davis asked if he could instead focus on football. He wanted to earn his spot as a starter. Even head coach Justin Wilcox was a little taken aback.
“We’re coming up on the Spring Game, which is a Saturday, and he comes up to me on Tuesday and says, ‘Hey, do you think I could play in the Spring Game?’’ Wilcox said. “I was like, ‘You’ve got a meet on Saturday,’ and he says, ‘Yeah, but I want to play in the game.’ I was like, ‘Of course,’ doing a double-take because I’ve never heard that before. … He’s one of the best high-hurdlers in the country, and he’s begging to play in the Spring Game. And I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, man. Awesome.’ … Just that’s the type of guy he is.”
On game day broadcasts, it’s rare to hear Davis talked about without his track and field career being mentioned. Last year, he finished 14th in the 110-meter hurdles at NCAAs with a time of 13:87. And if you Google his name, the first thing to pop up is his track and field profile on Cal Athletics.
But both Davis and Wilcox think that Davis has made the case to be a football-first kind of guy.
“I felt like most of the time, before, I was a track guy who played football,” Davis said, “and trying to get away from that and be a football guy when I’m at football and a track guy when I’m at track. And I felt like, since I’ve been able to make plays, that I’ve been able to adopt that mentality when I’m up here as a football player.”
Wilcox said that, to him, Davis’ track career is a bit of an afterthought.
“I think he’s been a football player; in his mind, he’s always been a football player,” Wilcox said. “He’s an elite talent in track, but I don’t think he’s ever seen himself as ‘I’m a track guy who is going to go lend my services to football.’ The guy is a football player who happens to be an elite high-hurdler. That’s how I view him.”
Davis’ road to being on the Cal football team certainly wasn’t an easy one. He had no offers, but he didn’t let that stop him. After deciding he wanted to play football at Cal, he sent email after email to the Bears’ assistant athletics director of football operations, Andrew McGraw, who had previously attended the same high school as Davis. Eventually, he was given a spot on the team. Only after that did Davis look into being on the track and field team, as well.
As a redshirt freshman year on the football team, Davis was designated a cornerback and played on special teams. His redshirt sophomore year, the new coaching staff moved him to safety, but he still spent most of the time on special teams as a kick returner. In both years, he earned the J. Scott Duncan Award, which is given annually to the most valuable special teams player.
His junior year, he’s one of the Bears’ two starting safeties — and he’s been nothing short of stellar.
This season, Davis has a team-high four interceptions, 48 tackles, one-and-a-half tackles for loss, five passes broken up and one fumble recovery. He’s also making a number of plays that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet but show just how good he’s been this year. Take, for example, Colorado’s final offensive play last weekend. With a lot on the line, and the Buffaloes at the 50-yard line, Davis came from his post-safety spot to cover an insane amount of ground and tipped away the intended 40-plus-yard pass. Game over.
“That’s as good a play as he made,” Wilcox said. “That’s a big-time play. I’d love to say that’s (the coaching staff), but that’s all Ashtyn.”
Wide receiver Moe Ways, who has to go up against Davis daily at practice, joked that he’s heard of Davis and has seen “a couple YouTube clips of him.”
“Ashtyn is a freak of nature,” Ways said. “His athletic ability is out-the-roof. His mindset and how he slows the game down in his head makes him a very smart and instinctive football player. … He makes our team so much better, on and off the field. I’m glad he’s on my team.”
Talent and instincts are obviously a big part of a safety’s game, but Davis is also always putting in the work. He’s had to spend time getting his body back into football shape after track season, he’s gotten up before the crack of dawn to watch film and work with his coaches, and he’s never taken his spot on this team for granted. Earlier this year, Davis was put in concussion protocol and was told that, during the week, he could take part in any team activities that didn’t require another player. So, basically everything. But he didn’t let that stop him. During drills at practice, Davis stood 15 yards behind the play and mimicked like he was part of the defense, making hand signals and talking to imaginary defensive backs.
“You’re not forcing him to do stuff like that, that’s just who he is,” Wilcox said. “To see him grow from a year ago where he was kind of learning to play safety– and he’s still just such a young football player. And to see him keep improving every week, whether it’s in practice or in games, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s really starting to get it more and more.’ He’s got all the physical tools, and he just loves it. You tell him something, you better be right what you’re telling him. That’s what’s fun coaching guys like that.”
Wilcox added, “And he walked on here. … It’s just such a great story. He doesn’t take it for granted, any of this.”
This article first appeared here.