“Great job, ADG” was constantly repeated during the South team’s practices at the Senior Bowl this week. Akeem Davis-Gaither came into the six-day, all-star event as a notable name, but he wasn't on the pedestal as some of the other first-round players that were frequently mentioned. Projected early selection prospects like Justin Herbert and Javon Kinlaw were often talked about, but it was the Appalachian State linebacker who stole the show in Mobile, Alabama.
Let's back up a bit though.
Thomasville, North Carolina, is a small city near the heart of the state, but it's one few have heard of. It was once known as "Title Town," alluding to when Thomasville High School went on a run of winning 1A Football State Championships in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008. Nearly a decade ago, Davis-Gaither exited the halls of the iconic program as a slender 5-foot-10, 170-pound 2-star safety that many schools were hesitant taking a chance on.
“It definitely was a rough start,” Davis-Gaither told TDN earlier in the week. “In the first two years, I didn't get any attention from colleges. I had a pretty good season in my junior year and going into the summer of my senior year, the scholarship offers started to roll in. Boston College was my first offer and then a bunch of others followed."
Among all of those offers, there was one that stood out above the rest.
Appalachian State wasn't the first school that extended a scholarship to him, but its positives were what made it so appealing. He liked the small-town atmosphere, similar to home, and he was wowed on his official visit. The City of Boone is a small, tight-knit area. He felt a different type of connection; he was comfortable.
Similar to the aura of his old stomping grounds, Davis-Gaither has a quiet, but confident demeanor about himself. The son of a long-time college football coach, his father, Keith, has jumped from multiple levels of competition and states — including stops at Winston-Salem State, Elon, Ball State, East Carolina, Army and Western Michigan.
I have had plenty of encounters with coach Gaither. He recruited me out of high school and again saw him near the gridiron in Mobile. I had an extended conversation with him Friday about what he said is one of the proudest moments of his life.
"I'm beyond proud of him and what he's accomplished to this point,” Gaither said. “Many don't know about the work that he's put in, but all of his hard work is now coming to the light."
There were periods of time where he questioned his decision to attend App. The limited role during his freshman season waned on him. After always being the star player for the Thomasville Bulldogs, there was a big adjustment period where he had to get used to being at the bottom of the totem pole.
It was a role that wasn’t foreign to him when he entered campus only weighing 175 pounds, and going from that mark to now weighing 219 was no easy feat.
"I didn't take my diet seriously and with me being one of the few that went on to play college ball from my class, I couldn't do the same things that they did,” Davis-Gaither said. “The first thing that the staff did was to set me up with a nutritionist and my eating habits weren't all that well, which led to why I was so light. After my freshman year on campus, I got up to 195, then 205, then 210 and then 215-plus this season."
Now, 258 tackles, 55 games played and 44 pounds later, Davis-Gaither draft stock is sizzling after his performance at the Senior Bowl. The 2019 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year has backed up his big final campaign at App. State with 104 tackles and career highs in tackles for loss (14.5), pass deflections (nine), sacks (five) and interceptions (one). With the NFL moving to more of a passing league, the former Mountaineers star is now the modern-day type of linebacker.
"I played more of an off-the-ball SAM position,” Davis-Gaither said. “A rover in our scheme. I see myself playing WILL linebacker on the next level. I did a lot of coverage in college. Covering the slots, tight ends and running backs, so I don't see coverage as a problem."
Davis-Gaither is a fantastic blend of height, weight, speed and explosiveness. With his comfort in coverage coupled with his ability as a blitzer off of the edge, he may sit atop many linebacker rankings on draft boards. But it's his humbleness, dedication and focus that has enabled him to go from a 5-foot-10, 170-pound safety prospect to a 6-foot-1, 219-pound wrecking ball. With a standout performance at the Senior Bowl, which included Practice Player of the Week honors, he has continued to use his small-town, large playing-style to hopefully become a top draft pick in April.