Getting To Know: WR/KR Nick Davis

Kick return man Nick Davis makes up for his lack of height with a huge heart, as the former Wisconsin Badger has shown a willingness to take big hits at full speed.

The Minnesota Vikings media guide says rookie free agent Nick Davis is 6 feet tall and weighs 180 pounds. That's like saying the author of this article is Ernest Hemingway.

A bit of a stretch on both accounts, right?

OK, OK, a few inches of exaggeration hardly merits the same analogy as linking a sports writer to a literary genius, but you get the point. In a football player's world, Davis' stature more closely resembles that of a punter or kicker than a player who enjoys participating in multi-player pile-ups. Or worse, being the focal point of them.

But take a closer look.

Watch Davis run in the open field like a deer at full stride through the prairie. Witness him recklessly charging through a wedge of blockers like a bull through the streets of Pamplona as players who would lose Davis in their shadow are sprinting full speed the opposite direction, craving the collision course and the crushing moment of impact. Then see Davis opt for contact that leads to him being the recipient of a punishing tackle, only because, rather than take the easy route out of bounds, he may gain an extra couple of yards.

In reality, Davis stands at about 5-10. Yet, he is the center of attention everyone is chasing.

"100 miles per hour," Davis said of the speed on the field during punt and kick returns. "I like the attention. Hopefully, I can keep doing the job and keep getting better, game by game."

The Vikings play host to the Chicago Bears on Sunday at the Metrodome. This will be Week 8 in the NFL. It will be the Vikings' seventh game this season. Davis, in his rookie season, has already suffered a concussion in Seattle and a sprained left foot against Detroit.

But that hasn't stopped his desire.

"I like his aggressive style of running," coach Mike Tice said during training camp. "He runs hard."

In college, Davis was a receiver for the Wisconsin Badgers, but he was known around the Big Ten Conference, as well as the nation, as a kick returner by heart. By the time he finished his career at Wisconsin, Davis was the Badgers' record holder for most punt return yardage and most kickoff return yardage. During his college career, Davis returned three punts for touchdowns and two kickoffs for touchdowns.

As a senior last fall, Davis was a finalist for the Mosi Tatupu Award, given to the top special teams player in the country. Admittedly, it will take him a while to reach that elite special teams status in the NFL. Returning kicks in Madison, Wis., Ann Harbor, Mich., and West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday afternoons was challenging, but hardly comparable to his tasks at hand on Sundays.

"The speed is amazingly different in the NFL than in college," Davis told VU. "It's a lot faster up here. In college, you have two or three guys on a team that run 4.3 (second 40-yard dashes) or 4.4s. Up here, linebackers run a 4.4. You have to be able to react to things a lot faster up here, especially in the return game because everybody knows you're getting the ball.

"It's not like you're a running back and the linebackers have to read the key. Everybody running down the field knows you're getting the ball."

Through the first third of the season, Davis has been the Vikings' leading returner on kickoffs and punts. He is averaging 21.2 yards on 13 kickoff returns and 7.7 yards on 10 punt returns.

Getting past the numbers, though, Davis realizes not much separates a 10-yard return from a 90-yard return. The margin of error that separates a mediocre return from one that gets "housed" is …

"Probably one-half an inch," Davis said. "A half an inch here or a half an inch there. … It really is a game of inches up here. Everything is happening so fast and the level of the talent out on the field is amazing. The difference between a 15-yard return and a return to the house is something very, very minute. It's small.

"Sometimes you see it on the field. Then you go over it again on film the next day and you try to correct it."

Vikings receiver Chris Walsh, who for almost a decade has been the Vikings' premier special teamer, has already seen the maturation of Davis. From the beginning of training camp through now, the middle of the regular season, he sees Davis holding himself up to a high standard.

"He's made huge strides since he first got here," Walsh said. "Nick's a guy who's hard on himself. If he makes a little mistake, he focuses on that mistake instead of focusing on the big picture. I'm trying to get him to relax and let his athleticism take over."

An all-state football player at Manchester (Mich.) High, as well as a state high school track runner-up in both the 100-meter and the 200, Davis always knew he was a gifted athlete. Surprisingly, though, the university in is own back yard of Ann Harbor, Mich., offered him nothing more than the opportunity to join the Wolverines football team as a walk-on.

But Wisconsin offered him more — a scholarship and a promise to play. Even though he left his home state, he was still playing in the Big Ten Conference that he followed — and admired — as a kid.

"I actually kind of fell into Wisconsin," Davis said. "I visited there in January, which was very late in the recruiting process. I committed that weekend."

Surprising when you envision his trip. There he was, in the middle of January on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Obviously, the football season was over, so he couldn't get wooed by the college football excitement that is the lifeline of the campus on autumn Saturday afternoons. Nor could he appreciate student life — Wisconsin students were on winter break.

Still, he was attracted.

"Aside from all the students being gone, all the players were up there and the coaching staff treated me very well," Davis said. "A lot of college coaches tell you a lot of things, but I felt like those guys were being honest with me."

Four years after he began his Wisconsin college career, Davis found himself receiving phone calls from the NFL team that makes its home one state to the west of his college dorm.

"It was kind of frustrating to see some of the players who I felt I was better than in college getting drafted over me," Davis admitted. "But that's how it goes."

After the draft, he fielded several calls. But the Vikings, like the Badgers, gave him the best opportunity to play.

"I felt like I had the best chance to get on the field and make the team here because there wasn't a set return man on the roster," he said. "Plus, coach (Jay) Hayes was up here and I had a pretty good rapport with him in Wisconsin, so I felt pretty good about coming up here."

From Friday nights in Michigan to Saturday afternoons in Madison to Sundays in Minneapolis. The path wasn't always easy, but it was direct.

"I feel like I'm blessed here and somebody's watching over me," Davis said. "I feel like I'm in the right spot."

Favorite actor: Morgan Freeman
Favorite actress: Katie Holmes
Favorite TV show: The Sopranos
Favorite music: Hard rock, rap, easy listening
Favorite vehicle: Ferrari
Hobby: Playing with his dog, "Tucker"
If I wasn't playing football: I'd be going to school to finish my consumer science degree. I'm going to finish this offseason.
Toughest player I've ever faced: LaVar Arrington (Penn State)

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