METAIRIE, La. — Darryl Hemphill can’t take all the credit. But he was clearly some sort of visionary when it came to the New Orleans Saints‘ 2018 first-round pick.
Hemphill, a former defensive back who played briefly with the Baltimore Colts, was the defensive coordinator at San Antonio’s John Paul Stevens High in 2012 when he decided that a tall, skinny sophomore named Marcus Davenport was being wasted as a wide receiver on a team that didn’t throw the ball that well.
“He was out there at 6-foot-5, about 180 pounds, looking pretty. But he wasn’t catching any balls,” Hemphill said.
Hemphill suggested that Davenport switch to defensive end. When it came to Davenport’s dad, at least, it took a lot of convincing.
“I didn’t go down easy,” Ron Davenport confesses now, six years later.
He doesn’t mind admitting that he was wrong, especially after his son landed with his beloved hometown Saints, of all teams — an event that instantly brought Dad to tears.
“He basically told me, ‘Trust me. Just trust me. Give me a chance,'” Ron said of Hemphill’s vision. “And look where we are now.”
Hemphill laughed at the memory. But he admitted that even he never quite saw this coming.
Davenport (now 6-foot-6, 264 pounds after four years at the University of Texas at San Antonio) was so coveted by the Saints that they traded away next year’s first-round selection to move up from No. 27 to No. 14 in one of the draft’s most stunning moves.
Although Saints coach Sean Payton agreed that it’s fair to call Davenport a raw, developmental prospect, he also called him the “prototype” for the position when it comes to size and speed.
What a far cry that was from four years ago. Only two colleges, UNLV and New Mexico, offered Davenport a scholarship when he was still just 198 pounds as a senior. He chose UTSA after the fledgling new FBS program in his hometown finally made him an offer in the final stretch before signing day.
“I’m not gonna be that good. I’m not gonna claim [I envisioned him being a first-round NFL draft pick],” Hemphill said. “But I will say this. When UTSA came in … I told the defensive coordinator, ‘Look, if you redshirt Marcus, he’ll play on Sundays.’
“And I don’t know anything, because they didn’t even need to redshirt him, and he became the 14th overall pick. So my prediction was OK, but it wasn’t right on point.”
Davenport himself was a little easier to convince than his father. But he admitted it took a little bit of a leap of faith to abandon a glory position such as wide receiver.
“I thought [defensive end] was a cool concept. But when I first got there, I was like, ‘Man, I’m here to catch balls and touchdowns.’ But, hey, things change,” he said, noting that one of the things that appealed to him as an edge rusher was “I didn’t really have to rely on other people for my own production.”
The transition was a bit clunky at first.
“He was not a very good defensive end [his junior year],” Hemphill said, laughing now because he can. “He was just learning. He always went inside, and he [rarely] kept contain. It was hard for him to adjust to bigger guys coming at him and wanting to cut him and block him.
“But we knew that things were changing when he came to us one day [as a senior], and he said, ‘Coach, they’re not running at me anymore.’ And I go, ‘Marcus, that’s a sign of respect. You’re getting good at this position. They’re running away from you.'”
Davenport said he was hooked on the new role pretty quickly, despite the hurdles.
“We had a really good running back. And I liked that I was able to stop him,” recalled Davenport, who started to gain a little more size and strength as a senior and really bloomed about midway through his college career, after he grew from about 215 as a sophomore to 230 as a junior to 260 as a senior under head coaches Larry Coker and Frank Wilson.
Davenport, still 21 after finishing high school early, racked up 15 sacks, 27.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles in his final two seasons. He was named Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. Then he impressed scouts against stiffer competition at the Senior Bowl and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds — blazing for his position — at the NFL scouting combine.
“Just gaining weight and learning … the physicality and strength I could apply,” Davenport said when asked how to explain his rapid rise. During this past weekend’s rookie minicamp, he was quick to add several times, “I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’ve still got a lot to improve on.”
That kind of humility, desire and work ethic ring familiar to those who know Davenport best.
Everyone from Davenport’s father to Hemphill to Coker to Wilson agrees that those traits are what transformed Davenport from a lanky high school receiver into a prized NFL pass-rusher.
“I believe when you ask him, he’d say, ‘I’m a work in progress, and there’s not a point in my game where I think I’ve arrived. I want to grow,'” said Wilson, who is a New Orleans native and spent 11 years as an assistant coach in the SEC before being hired at UTSA in 2016. “That’s the beautiful thing about him. He’s not entitled. He’s not a young man that thinks he’s got it all figured out.”
Wilson said he could see Davenport’s talent when he started watching the film. But what he remembers most is a one-on-one meeting in which Davenport said something along the lines of, “Coach me, coach. Get me better. I want to be a great player.”
Said Wilson: “That’s a coach’s dream when a young man says those words to you. And that’s what he went about doing, wanting to better himself every day on the practice field and in the meeting room. … A lot of people talk about it, but he put in the work to position himself to do so.
“It was a maturation process, physically, mentally that put him in the position to do so. But going into his senior year, we kind of figured, ‘This guy’s different.’ Because of his want-to, his desire.”
Coker, the former national championship-winning coach at Miami, was the first head coach in UTSA history, with the first season played in 2011. He laughed about his role in Davenport’s development — “I really brought him along, didn’t I?” — but he expressed pride in what the moment meant for both the player and the program.
“There were some awkward beginnings because he wasn’t a polished athlete when he came in. He had a lot of work to do, and of course, he worked hard at it,” Coker said. “It wasn’t overnight, but it seemed like almost an overnight success, how much he progressed and how quickly. I guess you could say you get lucky on a guy like that, who is so smart and works so hard.”
Davenport will face a steep learning curve in the NFL, including the major step up in competition level and the transition from the two-point stance he used during much of his final two years in college.
But if he continues to progress at the rate he has, the Saints might wind up feeling just as lucky.