Niyo: Rowdy ‘Coach Bo’ might lead Lions to Alabama talent

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Bo Davis

Indianapolis – Bo knows football. Not coincidentally, he also knows a lot of the football players in this year’s NFL draft class.

So while the Lions worked their way through interviews at the league’s annual scouting combine this week, Detroit’s new defensive line coach, Bo Davis, kept running into some of his former players.

“It’s kind of like a little reunion,” laughed Da’Ron Payne, the defensive MVP from Alabama’s national championship win back in January and one of the top prospects in this year’s draft.

This sort of thing is bound to happen when you add a former Nick Saban assistant to your coaching staff, as Lions head coach Matt Patricia did in hiring Davis last month. Alabama – fresh off a fifth national championship in nine years – had 14 players invited to this year’s combine. The Crimson Tide had 10 players drafted a year ago, and two dozen combined over the past three years.

If you view the combine as a meat market, well, Alabama is the NFL’s packing plant, in many respects.

But as the Lions get ready to pack up and head home from a week of player evaluations in Indianapolis, it’s hard to ignore the ties that could draw them to select one of the top defensive players in this draft.

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There’s Boston College’s Harold Landry, an edge rusher who spent the last two years playing for new Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. And then there’s all of Bo’s boys, from Payne to Da’Shawn Hand and even Marcus Davenport, another intriguing prospect from Texas-San Antonio.

Davis, widely viewed as one of college football’s top defensive line coaches, saw his career at Alabama end abruptly nearly two years ago after an NCAA investigation into an “impermissible meeting” with four prospective recruits that the NCAA ruled was pre-arranged by a booster. Davis was later found to have misled officials about the meeting and slapped with a two-year show-cause penalty last April.

Davis, 47, spent some time working as a truck driver in Birmingham, Ala., after that, and also worked briefly for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins before landing another college coaching job at UTSA. That’s where the Mississippi native – a standout nose tackle at LSU in the early 1990s – quickly made an impact on Davenport, the nearly 6-foot-6, 264-pound defensive end who has drawn comparisons to the Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah.

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“Bo made me a better player,” Davenport said Friday at the combine. “He believed in me. Working with him, he helped refine my technique.”

And though Davenport readily admits it’s still relatively raw – remember, he was a 6-4, 198-pounder when he began his college career – he credits Davis’ work for putting him in position to be a likely first-round pick next month.

So does Payne, the 6-foot-2, 311-pound prospect who wowed scouts by running a 4.91-second 40-yard dash Sunday, further solidifying his status as one of the top two defensive tackles in this year’s draft. His 10-yard split – 1.67 seconds – was even faster than Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa’s time two years ago at the combine.

And if you ask about Davis, who recruited Payne to Alabama and coached him as a freshman, you’ll get a quick smile and a hearty laugh, too.

“Oh, Coach Bo, he's gonna get you right,” said Payne, who had an interview scheduled Saturday with the Lions in Indianapolis. “He's gonna make sure if you mess up, you're gonna know that you messed up. He's gonna coach you hard and he's gonna love you hard, too. I love Coach Bo. He taught me a bunch of things coming out of high school. I didn't know much, but I think he got me to where I'm at now.”

How Davis ended up in Detroit – replacing longtime line coach Kris Kocurek, who later landed a job with the Miami Dolphins – is another story. But he and Patricia were hardly strangers given all the connections between Saban and Patriots coach Bill Belichick and their respective staffs.

“So from a technique and fundamental standpoint, when you can speak the same language, that’s a great starting point,” Patricia said. “I’ve actually been around Bo a little bit, known Bo a little bit – with Alabama ties and New England ties – and you understand that he gets what we’re talking about and where we want to be and how we want to do it. That’s first and foremost.”

And the fact that Davis also coached Lions defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, one of the key young defensive pieces in Detroit, “is a great bonus,” Patricia added.

Da'Shawn Hand

Alabama defensive end Da’Shawn Hand, who had an informal meeting with the Lions on Friday, described the energetic Davis as both a “rah-rah guy” and a “rowdy” position coach.

“But he’s going to demand excellence out of you,” said Hand, the nation’s top-rated recruit in 2014 who picked Alabama over Michigan, among other schools. “He was my coach for my first two years and I love him. I love the guy.

“He was just honest. That was the whole thing, I guess, that attracted me to Alabama was they didn’t try to lie and be like, ‘Oh, you’re going to play immediately,’ you know what I’m saying? It was kinda like, ‘Look, you come in here, we would like to have you. You’re a great athlete and we’re going to fine-tune you and if you deserve a spot to play, you’ll play.”

And when the subject of a possible reunion in the pros comes up now, whether in casual conversations or formal interviews, the answer is the same, across the board.

“Oh, I wouldn't mind going up there with him and A'Shawn,” Payne said, smiling. “It’d be like back in the day.”