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WMU's Corey Davis bet on himself, won big

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Western Michigan's Corey Davis, left, poses with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Tennessee Titans during the first round of the 2017 NFL draft.

In the green room at the NFL draft in Philadelphia in Thursday night, the television cameras all swooped over to another table, in anticipation of who they assumed would be the next pick, the fifth overall pick.

Nearby, his table practically left alone, Corey Davis got a phone call from the Tennessee Titans. The cell service was bad, and he couldn't hear anything. So the Titans called back on a landline.

And Davis' life changed forever.

"He was incredibly emotional about it," said P.J. Fleck, Davis' coach at Western Michigan who was with Davis in Philadelphia. "Corey kind of broke down, and everybody else was kind of going crazy."

Davis, the all-time Football Bowl Subdivision leader in career receiving yards, was the highest pick in Western Michigan history, and second-highest in Mid-American Conference history.

It was a surprise to some experts, all of whom liked Davis, but assumed he might be a mid-first-round selection.

It wasn't a shock, however, to Fleck, who provided Davis his lone Division I scholarship offer four years ago and has watched him blossom into one of the greatest receivers in the history of college football.

"I don't think I was as surprised as everybody else," Fleck said in a phone interview with The News on Saturday afternoon. "If you need a playmaker, you're not going to wait for one."

And the Titans needed a playmaker, especially on offense, to go with quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Davis, interestingly, was the third player from Michigan drafted in the first round over the last four years, joining offensive linemen Jack Conklin (Michigan State, 2016) and Taylor Lewan (Michigan, 2014).

Davis hasn't yet spoken with Mariota, but the two already have begun texting.

"Just pretty much congratulating me and welcoming me to the family and everything," Davis said at his introductory press conference. "Just trying to catch up."

Davis also is getting acquainted with the Titans' other first-round pick, another playmaker in USC cornerback Adoree' Jackson. The two have been following each other on Twitter for a while – Davis is pretty funny, Jackson said – and met at the NFL Combine, before eventually becoming teammates in the green room Friday night.

When Davis was drafted fifth, Jackson was in the bathroom.

Thirteen picks later, Jackson, who as an 8-year-old famously outran a train, was taken by the Titans – two Illinois natives heading to Tennessee.

"For me to go against him every day in practice is going to help me out," Jackson said. "It's going to be great for us to get to battle against each other."

That's what made both Davis and Jackson appealing to the Titans, their work ethics.

Everybody at Western Michigan routinely would call Davis the hardest worker on the team, and that's a good thing when the best player also is the hardest worker.

The work ethic was just as evident as a senior as it was as a hungry freshman. After all, Davis knew what was at stake this past season.

Davis, 22, strongly considered entering the NFL draft after his junior season, and he was projected to be a third-round pick, Fleck said. That's no small thing, given third-rounders get hundreds of thousands in guaranteed money, and Davis came from next to no means. Growing up, his parents rarely had cars.

But other things mattered to Davis, such as his degree for starters. He also saw the talent Western Michigan had coming back, and how special the season could be – and what a story it would be after the team had been 1-11 during Davis' freshman season. He's always been about the team, but obviously, a banner senior season for his team would raise his profile, and thus his draft stock, too.

"Corey truly had belief in himself," Fleck said. "I think Corey knew he could eventually become a first-round (pick)."

So Davis decided to return, and what a decision that was.

Western Michigan opened the season with two Big Ten wins in nonconference play, then started the season 13-0, winning the MAC championship game against Ohio. That led to a berth in the New Year's Six Cotton Bowl, where the Broncos suffered their one defeat, to Wisconsin, in a pretty competitive game.

During all that, Davis became FBS's all-time receiving king, and set a number of other records – Western records, MAC records and national records.

He also fine-tuned a game that already was pretty good, specifically improving on 50-50 balls.

"That's going be huge in this league," said Davis, who played at 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds but wants to get heavier in the pros.

He worked on the 50-50 balls with a lot of ball drills, alongside Fleck, now the coach at Minnesota, and receivers coach Matt Simon, who went with Fleck to Minnesota. He also worked on his speed, and he worked on his strength – one of the drills for that was squeezing rice.

Western Michigan took out an insurance policy to ease any of Davis' concerns about returning, not that it would be needed, even though he couldn't participate in the NFL Combine because of an ankle injury.

Not that the ankle injury was overly concerning to NFL teams, especially the Titans, who now have what they believe will be their franchise quarterback (Mariota), running back (DeMarco Murray) and receiver (Davis).

Davis passed on hundreds of thousands had he gone last year, and has been rewarded with a contract that's expected to be worth around $25 million.

"He earned it," Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard said.

"There's nobody that deserves it more than Corey," Fleck said of the two-star recruit who, again, had just that one offer from the Broncos. "He chose to develop. We had the blueprint for him, but he had to do the work.

"There was nothing that was going to stop him."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984