Imagine being in the midst of your senior season of high school football, with homecoming, the endless flow of recruiting mail by colleges and the local press outlets putting you in the spotlight. Then it all comes to a screeching halt, when all of a sudden a freak injury throws a monkey wrench into those plans. The offers begin to dissipate like a bowl of water in the Mojave Desert, and let’s take it a step further-a coach even has the audacity to hang up on you, mid-sentence, upon hearing about the injury. This is what happened to Tennessee-Chattanooga’s standout defensive phenom, Davis Tull, an athletic freakshow who the Pittsburgh Steelers would be wise to take a late flier on.
After a snapped femur during his senior season of high school, the recruiting trail went M.I.A. for Tull.
“I was under the impression that I had shown enough talent to warrant a scholarship when I got hurt and was still thinking I was going to sign on signing day,” Tull said. “Once the news broke, college recruiters essentially gave up on me. Most of them said they would call me later but looking back on it they were just searching for a way off the phone.”
Although he never gave a name, one even ended the call abruptly on him, without even as much as a “sorry for your luck.”
Although it was a serious injury, it wasn’t the type that put his football career in jeopardy, like a torn ligament, it was just horrible timing. It was right in the midst of his senior season, where recruiting can be the hottest. Prior to that, he had the interest of some Big East and Conference USA schools.
“I really liked Cincinnati at the time and I felt like I could fit into their 3-4 defense very well,” he said. “I went to a camp there and visited over the summer and that was where I was initially hoping to go.”
The bottom of the barrel was where Tull went, so a walk-on spot he took, at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Growing up so close to the University of Tennessee he could probably smell it, this had to be a slap-in-the-face of sorts for Tull, but it only fueled the beast within to outperform his competition.
“That process definitely motivated me to become the best player I could be and not only show Chattanooga that they should have offered me but show the other schools we played what they missed out on,” Tull said.
The school actually treated him very well, he says, and noone even knew he was a walk-on. With his play on the field, labeling him a walk-on would be like calling an apple an orange.
A three-time Southern Conference DPOY(’12-14), he put his stamp on his resume right off the bat, immediately starting 11 games at defensive end en route to All-Freshman team accolades. His sophomore year, he re-wrote the UTC record books, with 12.5 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss, ranking fourth in the nation. He was the conference’s first sophomore to win the award since Dexter Coakley, the former Dallas Cowboys linebacker in the 2000’s. His junior and senior years, he was named a First-Team FCS All-American, and although his numbers went down a tiny bit, it was without a doubt due to the endless double and triple teams he faced.
“The recruiting process definitely put a chip on my shoulder to prove to everyone that I was a lot better than they thought,” he said. “What looked like such a disaster actually wound up being a blessing in disguise that drove me to outwork and outplay my competition.”
He finished his career with 37 sacks, fourth all-time in the FCS annals. If he could go back, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I have said before that I thank God for putting me in that situation,” he said.
After such a stellar career at UTC, he received an invite to the NFL Combine, where he put the scouts and GM’s in attendance on notice. At 6-foot-2 and 246 pounds, he had a 42.5-inch vertical leap, an extremely explosive number that was actually half an inch better than last year’s first-rounder, Ryan Shazier. For those of you who know the athletic performance Shazier put on last year leading up to the draft, this is high praise for Tull. He had the second-best broad jump among linebackers at 11-feet, and repped out 225 for 26 reps, a good showing which was fifth-best for the position. It was definitely a success, as he wanted to put to bed the ideas that he lacked the goods to make the transition to the NFL, whether it be a 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end.
“The NFL combine offers me the opportunity to do that and I am planning on taking full advantage of that exposure I may have missed out on at an FCS school.”
He didn’t run the 40 due to a hamstring issue, but at his pro day, he had eyes opening with his time of 4.57, which would’ve tied him for fifth-best at the combine.
“I’ve seen enough,” a scout said. “He can move.”
He reportedly had been laser-timed at 4.49 before the injury, but thinks he’s put the notions to bed about his small-school status a hindrance to his abilities.
“It’s been a little bit of a crazy process and I didn’t run as well as I had before the injury, but I think I may have helped myself today,” Tull said. “But my opinion isn’t the one that matters. It’s what those scouts thought. They’re the ones who will help decide whether I get drafted and how high.”
For a team like the Steelers, who’s tradition always brings to mind a fearsome pass-rush, Tull would be a great late-round prospect, to hone his skills as a special teams demon, while rotating in on passing downs doing what he does best, which is hunt quarterbacks.
“I hope to show the NFL that I am one of the best athletes in this draft,” Tull said. “The numbers show that I am a good football player and understand how to make plays but I want to show that I also am an NFL caliber athlete.”
The bottom line is that he will again face an uphill battle at cracking a starting lineup, or even perhaps making a 53-man roster. It’s nothing he hasn’t seen before, as thus far in his career he’s had to fight for everything he’s got. He supposedly wasn’t “good” enough to garner a Division I-A scholarship and he silenced those critics with a banner career at UTC. He used it as motivation and it became a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder each and every time he took the field, whether in practice or on game day.
It’s a chip he’ll likely carry with him into the league, and perhaps late on draft weekend, Kevin Colbert and company will wisely use it to their advantage.
“It forced me to make sure I was always outworking everyone else,” he said. “I wrote down my goals before starting my first camp but never showed anyone because they would say I was being unrealistic. I was able to use that motivation and with the help of the people around me at UTC, exceed those goals.”