The Story of Ashtyn Davis’ Rise from Walk-On to Jets Safety – “You Knew He Was Going to be Special”

James Kuntz breaks down Asthyn Davis’ rise from walk-on to the New York Jets by talking with the people who saw his growth first hand…

When Ashtyn Davis was drafted by the Jets, many fans were confused.

At the time, safety was arguably the team’s strongest position, but it soon became clear why Davis was the Jets’ choice. Davis was a consensus top-45 prospect who slipped to pick 79 due to injury. In addition, the Jets were entering a contract year with safety Marcus Maye and under pressure to extend super-star safety Jamal Adams to a record-setting contract. The Jets believed that Davis not only presented inordinate value as a third round pick but could also provide the team with flexibility in its upcoming contract negotiations with Adams and Maye.

With Adams now in Seattle, and the Jets reconstituting themselves to yet another rebuild, Davis has the unique opportunity to learn from two seasoned veterans (Maye and Bradley McDougald, who was acquired in the Adams trade) without the burdensome expectation of having to start immediately.

Although Davis will likely have a limited role in the 2020 defense, his long term upside is through the roof.

Conversations with Davis’ coaches reveal a relentlessly driven player with the physical gifts and work ethic to be a top safety in the NFL.

Small Town Athlete

A Santa Cruz, California native, Davis was an underdeveloped freshman when he first stepped foot onto a high school football field. Erik Redding, Santa Cruz High School’s athletic director, explains, “I didn’t know what he was going to be as a freshman. He was a skinny kid who hadn’t filled out yet.”

According to Jesse Trumbull, head football coach at Santa Cruz High School (SCHS), Davis’ athleticism “was always there. We knew he had raw, natural athletic ability.”

Davis’ athletic prowess shined through in the extraordinary athletic feats that he routinely attempted.

Ten years before Davis was catching footballs while back-flipping during practice with the Jets, he was doing the exact same thing in high school. “He used to do those five or six times a day.” Redding elaborates, “We’d be on water break, and he’d practice catching the ball and doing the flip. I’ve seen him do that a hundred or two hundred times.”

It wasn’t long until Davis emerged as one of SCHS’ best players. In fact, Davis played almost every position: “He played safety and corner for us, taking away the best athlete from the other team. Back then we were running the fly offense so Ashtyn was a sweeper, running a lot of our jet and fly sweep action, also catching some passes out of the slot.” Trumbull adds, “He was returning punts and kick offs. I’m almost 100% sure he was also our long snapper back in the day.”

Football was not the only sport at which Davis excelled. Trumbull believes that, for Davis, running track in addition to playing football “was a way to work on speed and stay in shape.” However, during the college recruiting process, Davis received significantly more attention from track recruiters than football recruiters.

“I had three or four colleges that were recruiting him for football, but I had fifteen colleges recruiting him for track. And once he broke the state record, you had Oregon, Oregon State, Arkansas, and Cal knocking down the door.” Crucially, Redding adds, “In his mind, [Ashtyn] always wanted to play football.”

Trumbull concurred: “I think Ashtyn did track to get his foot in the door for football.”

Two Sport Collegiate Standout

After one year on Cal’s track & field team, Davis joined the Cal football team in 2015. Davis did not play at all his first year, which made his subsequent emergence as a special teams ace in 2016 even more improbable. As a redshirt freshman, Davis played in all twelve games and started at cornerback in three, and he was awarded the J. Scott Duncan award for Most Valuable Special Teams Player.

Davis’ success on special teams is a testament to his work ethic and curiosity. Coach Charlie Ragle, Cal’s Special Teams Coordinator, recalls Davis’ insatiable desire to improve on special teams: “Before he really took off as a DB, he was coming into my office, spending time to understand how should I hit this kick return, what can I do better running down on this kick off. It was just little things–he wanted to be great at whatever he was doing.”

Upon hearing of Davis’ success on special teams, Redding was not surprised, emphatically stating, “Whenever you give Ashtyn an opportunity, he will go until he can’t go anymore.”

Even before Davis received significant defensive playing time in 2017, it was clear to Ragle that Davis had the athletic tools and intangibles to be a successful college football player: “His thirst to be better is what separates him from the rest of the pack. His desire, coupled with the athletic pieces that he had—you knew he was going to special at that point.”

Ragle—having coached NFL offensive linemen Taylor Lewan and Wes Schweitzer in high school—has seen his fair share of NFL talent. His player evaluation instinct was vindicated in 2017, when Davis not only won the Duncan award for the second consecutive year but started six games at safety, recording 33 tackles and 1 interception.

At the same time, Davis was thriving on the track. That spring, Davis won the Pac-12 championship in the 110m hurdles and did not lose a 110m hurdles race the entire regular season.

Davis’ true breakout year, however, came in 2018, when he earned first team All-Pac 12 honors by the Associated Press and Pro Football Focus. He tied for third in the Pac-12 with 4 interceptions and collected 56 tackles, which ranked third on Cal’s defense.

Coach Peter Sirmon—currently Cal’s co-defensive coordinator and an NFL vet who played for Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams—spoke highly of Davis’ work ethic. As explained by Sirmon, Davis’ mentality is “every day proving to himself and the people around him that he belongs—first day talent with walk-on desire.”

This attitude was equally evident in the weight room. Cal Strength & Conditioning Coach Torre Becton describes Davis’ approach as low maintenance and self-motivated. “We had to tell him ‘woah’ more than ‘giddy-up’,” Becton explains.

It was during this time that Davis assumed more of a leadership role on the team. Never a ‘rah-rah’ guy, Davis let his actions speak for him. According to Ragle, “guys respected him for his craft and how he went about doing it. He really demonstrated leadership in how he went about working.”

Davis’ competitive temperament often on display in the weight room. “He was always out front, he never had a problem being the first guy to jump up in a competitive situation. We had a couple guys here who were more vocal leaders and Ashtyn found his comfortable space,” Becton explains. Notably, Becton underscores Davis’ social savvy: “He’ll be the guy that steps back and has a conversation with the guy who may be struggling as opposed to jumping in his face and getting heated.”

Even as Davis was coming into his own on the Cal football team, he made an effort to remain a role model for players at SCHS. Trumbull recounts how Davis will often “send a text on the afternoon of a rivalry game and say, ‘Hey coach, read this to the kids for me. Let them know that I’m thinking about them.’ He’ll still reach out to current players and try to be a motivating factor.”

In addition to his athletic prowess and leadership, Davis is remembered for his defining interpersonal traits: his unassuming intellect, genuine love of learning, and remarkable self-effacement.

Becton recalls, “He’s a really witty kid. He’s extremely bright and he takes interest in everything. Ashtyn is like a Renaissance man. If you have a conversation with him, you’d be amazed at the depth at which he knows things.”

Trumbull explains the great strides Davis has made in his mental understanding of football: “When I talked to Ashtyn the last few times, it’s the mental aspect of the game that has grown so impressively. His studying of coverages and what offenses are trying to do and how they will attack him—that, to me, is the most impressive aspect of his game.”

Becton emphasizes Davis’ strength of character: “I know for certain that Ashtyn Davis is a genuine, humble person. The level of humility he possesses is almost embarrassing. It’s like ‘dude, you’re the fastest, most athletic, toughest person that we’ve got.’ His best years are in front of him.”

Jets’ Newest Safety

As training camp kicks into high gear, Davis has made his presence known and his intent clear. Last week, he had a diving pass breakup as a single-high safety.

He has also made a positive impression on the Jets coaching staff. Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams praised Davis for his work ethic, stating, “He’s done very well in everything we’ve seen. He’s going to have to slow down mentally… But he is a sharp guy. He’s very sharp mentally. He’s extremely hard working and has a very good skill set.”

Jets defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson exalted Davis’ drive to master the defense, saying, “This young man is a sponge. He soaks up everything. I love coaching this young man.”

As Davis enters his first full season, the coaches who know him best provide Jets fans with reason for optimism. Ragle explains: “His best football is still in front of him. If you look at his career at Cal and charted his progress each year, it was leaps and bounds better than the previous one. The room for him to grow and be great is there. He has the mental capacity to be great. When you envision a big-time NFL player in terms of athletic traits, he embodies all of that and then some. His upside is extremely big.”

Trumbull, who has known Davis for over a decade, believes that the sky is the limit for Davis. “We learned a few years ago that we don’t put caps on what Ashtyn is capable of doing,” he says. “Ashtyn will outwork everybody around him. He’ll be a great teammate. He’ll study. He’ll crush the weight room. Every little part matters to him. The limit is purely set by himself. He’ll go as big and as bright as he wants to be.”

Over the past week, Ashtyn’s hometown of Santa Cruz has been plagued by wildfires and many residents have been displaced. Please consider contributing to relief efforts by donating to the Santa Cruz County Community Foundation Fire Response fund.