By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – When he learned that, as feared, he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, the diagnosis disheartened Lavel Davis Jr. He knew what lay ahead––months and months of grueling rehabilitation and strength training––and dreaded the prospect of tackling that process again.
This injury occurred last March when Davis, a 6-foot-7 wide receiver, collided awkwardly with a defensive back during the UVA football team’s first spring practice in 2021.
“It was one of those things where you were like, ‘He’ll be all right. He’ll get up,’ ” receivers coach Marques Hagans recalled. “But then when you saw him in the training room later that day, you felt a little bit different.”
In 2018, late in his junior season at Woodland High School in Dorchester, S.C., Davis had suffered the same injury, after which he’d rehabbed diligently to build strength in his legs.
“I did everything in my power to prevent this injury,” Davis recalled recently. “I busted my butt. I never wanted this to happen again. When I hit the ground, when I was on the ground, I was just so mad. It was really hard, just because I knew I had to go through this whole process again. I had to find that motivation. It was more taxing mentally to go through it again.”
Davis worked closely with Ashley Doozan, an assistant athletic trainer for UVA’s football team, and she noticed his initial apprehension. Eventually, though, Davis adopted the necessary mindset.
“He was like, ‘I’ve already done this once. I can do it again. I’m going to come back bigger, faster, stronger. I already know what’s coming, and I’m going to do it even better this time, and I’m going to really focus on doing things the way they should be done and not rushing,’ ” Doozan said. “He did struggle at the beginning, but once he kind of got through that and got his mind right and saw the benefit of having gone through it before, he did really well.”
With the start of spring practice still more than a month away for the Wahoos, Davis is ready to play again. He’s training with his teammates under the direction of new head strength and conditioning coach Adam Smotherman.
“I’m rolling now,” Davis said. “It was just harder in the beginning. The first two months were real hard, getting out of my head, ‘This happened again. I’ve got to go through this again.’ Now it’s out of my mind, and I’m working on becoming the best route-runner, the best player I can be.”
To see Davis lifting and running with no restrictions “is awesome,” said Hagans, one of the three assistants new head coach Tony Elliott retained from Bronco Mendenhall’s staff. “Just having him back and him smiling, working out, getting better, getting stronger, it’s cool.”
Davis was a revelation for the Hoos as a true freshman in 2020, catching 20 passes for 515 yards and five touchdowns in his eight games. Among FBS players who averaged at least two receptions per game, Davis ranked second nationally in yards per catch (25.8).
“Here’s a kid who worked so hard and really was looking forward to his second season,” Hagans said.
Instead, Davis was a spectator as the Cavaliers finished 6-6 in 2021. “It was a tough year for him,” Hagans said, “but he was still a really good teammate, and I was really proud of that, and now I’m excited for him to have this opportunity to get back and rejoin the team and play football.”
Mendenhall floated the possibility last spring that Davis might be cleared to play late in the regular season. That remained Davis’ goal throughout the first part of the season, as he watched quarterback Brennan Armstrong put up record-breaking numbers in the passing game.
“Everybody was rolling,” Davis said, “so I was just like, ‘I really want to be a part of the season. I really want to get back.’ ”
When November arrived, however, Davis realized he wasn’t quite where he needed to be, mentally or physically. “If I’m not if I’m not all the way confident, like 110 percent, then I’m not gonna do it,” Davis said.
He noted the recovery times of NFL athletes who had sustained similar injuries and decided it didn’t make sense to rush back. He would rather be safe, Davis said, than sorry.
“So I just looked at it from that lens,” Davis said. “My teammates, they wanted me to come back so bad, but they were just saying, ‘Look out for yourself in the long run, do what’s best for you, be smart about it.’ ”
Hagans said he spoke to Kelli Pugh, UVA’s head athletic trainer for football, and “we all wanted to make sure that we took more time with it. And so for him to rush back and try to have a game or two, it just wasn’t worth it.”
After the end of the regular season, UVA accepted an invitation to meet SMU in the inaugural Wasabi Fenway Bowl in late December. Had he wanted to play in that game, Davis might have been cleared to do so, but it ended up being a moot point. COVID-19 issues in the Cavaliers’ program led to the cancellation of the bowl.
To the athletic training staff, Doozan said, waiting until this year was always the wisest option for Davis.
“For the safety of Lavel’s knee, we like to shoot for having a full spring underneath him before he comes back for a fall,” Doozan said, “because spring is where they lay the foundation and get really strong … From a training perspective and a mindset perspective, it’s hard to justify someone going out there and competing against guys that have been full lifting, full football, for the past three months.”
During practices last season, Davis and outside linebacker Chico Bennett, who also suffered a torn ACL last spring, usually trained on the side with members of the strength and conditioning staff. But Davis remained an integral part of the receiving corps.
“I gave him opportunities to watch practice and take notes on guys,” Hagans said. “[Being sidelined with an injury] gives you more time actually to learn more about yourself, watch other guys across college football, watch guys in the NFL. That was something that we did. I’d just kind of give him assignments so he wasn’t just idle and feeling sorry for himself.
“So actually he was becoming a better student of the game, watching how other guys play and perform. And then there were little things he could do. He could work on his catches and other things that didn’t really affect his leg … I don’t think it was a wasted year at all. I know it was tough, because he wanted to play, but there were some things that he was able to do throughout the year that allowed him to be engaged and allowed him to actually get better as well.”
Armstrong is back to direct an offense that averaged 392.6 passing yards per game last season. Of the UVA wideouts who caught at least 10 passes each in 2021, four are back: Keytaon Thompson (78), Billy Kemp (74), Dontayvion Wicks (57) and Malachi Fields (11). With the addition of Davis and Devin Chandler, a transfer from Wisconsin, the group looks even more formidable.
“I think it’s good when expectations are high,” Hagans said, “and these guys want to be a big reason why UVA football is successful. That goes far beyond just catching: It’s blocking, special teams, leadership, those type of things as well. So I’m excited for what this group can be.”
To not be able to contribute to such a prolific offense last season was hard, Davis said, “because Brennan was doing his thing and [Wicks] was doing his thing, and Billy and KT,” Davis said. “Everybody was flowing. The offense was on an all-time-high type thing. Of course, that was kind of tough, because I wanted to be a part of it so bad. But I knew I couldn’t be a part of it. So I just wanted to be the best teammate I could be to them.
“I never wanted to try to make any situation about myself or if I was coming back. I wanted to come back. But I knew in the long run I didn’t want to do anything crazy. I wanted to be prepared for the long run and have my body back the way it used to be and even better than it was.”
It helped, Davis said, to have a rehab partner in Bennett, a transfer from Georgia Tech who enrolled at UVA in January 2021. Bennett also has been cleared to play.
“It was great to have somebody with me, to work out with, to challenge and keep me on my toes,” Davis said. “I’d be feeling bad one day, and he’d be like, ‘Bro, you got to get it done. You gotta go.’ And if he felt like that one day, I’d be like, ‘Bro, you got to get it together. You gotta go.’ ”
The dynamic between Davis and Bennett was interesting, Doozan said, “especially with Lavel having gone through the process before. When Chico kind of hit those road bumps in the process of rehab, Lavel was like, ‘It gets better, I promise. I’ve been through it.’ And then Chico coming back and kind of moving a little quicker also pushed Lavel. Even though he knew Lavel wasn’t quite on the same timeline, he was mentally pushing himself to be on the same timeline as Chico.”
Davis said he weighs about 225 pounds and would like to get up to 230. He’s eager to practice again, and he knows that at some point this spring he’ll get hit after catching a pass.
“I don’t think I’m going to be scared or anything,” Davis said. “I did all this preparation and everything and when I get on the field, there’s no point in being scared or fearful. I’ll walk towards the fear.”
The Cavaliers not only have a new head coach in Elliott, they have a new offensive coordinator in Des Kitchings. Davis met them both long before he enrolled at UVA in 2020.Elliott, then a Clemson assistant, recruited Davis, as did Kitchings, who was an assistant at NC State for eight years before joining the South Carolina staff in 2020. Kitchings coached the Atlanta Falcons’ running backs in 2021.
“Lavel was a guy that I was actually trying to get us to consider at North Carolina State,” Kitchings said, “knowing that he had a big upside, and obviously when he came here as a freshman he had a great year, and I’m excited about what he can do moving forward. The thing about Lavel is, he’s a tough kid, tough-minded, and he’s a worker.”
Elliott, who played wideout at Clemson, attended high school in Charleston, S.C., about 40 miles southeast of Davis’ hometown of Ridgeville, S.C.
“To be honest, it just feels good to have somebody like him from my area, from South Carolina, down in the low country where I’m from,” Davis said. “The thing that sticks out to me the most about him is just how well he can get along with everybody. He isn’t a standoff-ish person. He’s really genuine, and he’s real.”
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