Avery Davis settles in at slot in Notre Dame's unsettled wide receiver group

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Avery Davis insisted he would be ready if called upon to play quarterback.

The senior Notre Dame wide receiver hasn’t played the position since his true freshman season, but in a year when seemingly anything can happen during the COVID-19 pandemic, the scenario might not be that far-fetched.

Notre Dame hasn’t resorted to giving Davis quarterback reps in practice yet. It wouldn’t take much to convince him to give it a try.

“I haven’t taken any reps, but I’m always prepared,” Davis said. “That was the thing I grew up playing. I love the position, so I’ll always be prepared if that ever was to happen.”

Davis signed with Notre Dame as a three-star recruit in the 2017 class. In his senior season at Cedar Hill (Texas) High, Davis completed 190 of his 273 passes (70 percent) for 2,876 yards and 37 touchdowns with five interceptions.

Davis was moved out of the quarterback position in his sophomore year at Notre Dame. He was given opportunities at running back and wide receiver. Then the Irish coaching staff tried Davis at cornerback early in the 2019 preseason before moving him back to wide receiver.

As a senior, the 5-foot-11, 202-pound Davis has finally settled into a starting role as a slot receiver. He’s technically only started one of Notre Dame’s four games this season as the offense has utilized more tight ends, but he’s the No. 1 option in the slot. The certainty of his role has been a welcomed change.

“I feel the most comfortable with where I’m at right now,” Davis said.

That comfort hasn’t led to prolific production for Davis. His involvement in the offense has been limited much like many of Notre Dame’s wide receivers. Three touches in the 12-7 win over Louisville last Saturday — two catches for 17 yards and one run for 10 yards — counted as his personal season-high.

Despite only recording five catches for 56 yards in the first four games, only wide receivers Javon McKinley (seven catches for 121 yards) and Braden Lenzy (6 for 63) have been more productive than Davis.

Davis caught quarterback Ian Book’s first touchdown pass of the season in the season debut against Duke. That 17-yard reception remains the longest of Book’s three touchdown passes this season.

Back in August, head coach Brian Kelly said, “Avery Davis is a veteran who’s going to make plays for us.”

With the Irish in desperate need for playmakers at the wide receiver position, maybe Davis can provide that spark. Whether he’s the one to do it or not, Davis said he’s confident the wide receiver production will improve.

“We’re just optimistic and grateful for every opportunity we get,” Davis said. “We realize that we have a really, really, really good offensive line. We have really good backs. We have a really good receiving corps too.

“We’re confident. Whenever our opportunities come, we’re going to capitalize on them.”

That’s the attitude Davis has embraced throughout his Notre Dame football career. Robert “Bobbo” Torres, co-owner of T2 Sports Performance in South Bend, first started working with Davis in 2018 as he started his transition away from quarterback. He never noticed the various position switches having any impact on Davis’ work ethic.

“If you put a task in front of him, he’s going to give it his all and to the best of his ability,” Torres said. “Even when they put him at cornerback, he just went straight to work and didn’t say too much about it other than it’s different. He would just keep getting better one rep at a time. He has that mental grind of what a star is supposed to do.”

Even though Davis was working out alongside running backs Dexter Williams and Jafar Armstrong, Torres said Davis fit right in with them doing speed and agility training. It wasn’t obvious that he was a former quarterback.

“He looked very fluid doing pretty much any drill,” Torres said. “Being a quarterback, he was used to scrambling. If you looked at some of his tape, you could tell he was a natural at what he does.

“I even got a chance to play basketball with him. He’s actually good at that sport too. He has this on switch of being an athlete. That’s a gift for him. He’s an amazing athlete.”

If Notre Dame’s passing game continues to struggle, the Irish could shuffle their receiving corps. Would that include more Davis? Or would junior Lawrence Keys III, who was sidelined for a couple games, see an increased role?

The slot receivers are already battling with the tight ends for playing time. A healthy Kevin Austin Jr. even took some plays from the slot position against Louisville.

But any adjustments made in the Louisville game may be scrapped. Book only managed to complete 11 passes for 106 yards with the longest completion going to Austin for 18 yards.

Notre Dame’s passing game will likely need to be better on Saturday at Pittsburgh (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC) against a defense that has been much more forgiving against the pass than the run. The Panthers (3-3, 2-3) own the nation’s top run defense (allowing 61.5 yards per game) and the No. 7 total defense (274.7) but rank No. 27 in passing yards allowed (213.2).

The Irish have only passed for more than 201 yards this season once.

“We just have to prepare this week, have a solid couple days of practice and we’re going to go out there and compete,” Davis said. “We’re not worried about what happened last week. We’re confident. We’re going to stick to our process and go out there and have a good game.”

For Davis, it’s all about opportunities. His biggest games came in blowout victories over New Mexico and Bowling Green last season.

Now in a starting role, Davis’ biggest moment this season came on his 17-yard touchdown catch from Book against Duke. The touchdown gave the Irish an important two-score lead in the fourth quarter after a slow start.

He handled the situation with the same confidence he always projects. Quarterback, running back, cornerback or wide receiver — he just wanted a shot.

“It was man coverage, so it was just me versus him,” Davis said. “He covered me pretty well, but when the ball was in the air, I just needed it. I couldn’t let that opportunity pass.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Avery Davis changed his number from 4 to 3 this offseason, but he finally was able to stay put at the same position. After playing quarterback, running back and cornerback for the Irish, Davis is now the starting slot receiver.
Wide receiver Avery Davis has one of Notre Dame’s three receiving touchdowns through four games this season. Pictured, Davis scores against New Mexico last season.