Parting is such sweet sorrow

In light of Anthony Davis formally declaring for the NFL draft yesterday, what I'd like to do is write a short post analyzing his career at Rutgers, and what exactly he meant to the football program; akin to last year's post about Mike Teel. You know, really zero in on the defining characteristics of how significant he was to the program's overall trajectory. It's difficult for several reasons. I already analyzed his play as a sophomore, and over the summer looked at the factors that would influence his final decision on whether or not to declare. I've certainly written a fair bit about him at various points this season, alternating praise with maybe a little kneejerk criticism and scapegoating.

Davis is compelling figure, otherwise he wouldn't be such fruitful subject matter. In terms of the Rutgers football pantheon though, I'm still unsure as to how exactly Davis stacks up. Purely in terms of on-field contributions, it's open for debate whether he was even one of the top ten Scarlet Knights of the past decade. He wasn't even the best offensive lineman; Jeremy Zuttah and Pedro Sosa accomplished far more, and you could easily make a case for Darnell Stapleton as well. Shouldn't that be the only criteria involved in the matter?

Perhaps not, as Davis was no ordinary player; his lethargy on the field in 2009 at times indicated that he was well aware of that fact. Heralded by recruiting services as the arguably the finest high school lineman in the country, Davis spurned every suitor imaginable to play football at his home state university, located in the very same town wherein he accumlated all of those accolades. Truly, everyone who follows the Rutgers football program owes Davis a debt of gratitude for that very fact; just as they do to even the walk-ons that don the Scarlet and White.

Kenny Britt may have been the first ever 1st round draft pick from Rutgers, and the program had landed blue chip recruits before, but Davis has been to this point the most high-profile signee of Greg Schiano's tenure. The symbolic value was enormous, stretching all the way from when he first put pen to paper, to this coming April when he'll undoubtedly become a millionaire. If the top local talent can indeed stay home and develop properly, than supposedly Rutgers will have truly arrived as a destination college football program. You don't need to go to USC or Ohio State or Florida; not when there are so many good players nested away in our little state. Declaring was no surprise when everyone was saying that he was destined for the NFL from the start.

The resulting expectations were lofty, no, enormous, and it's actually to A.D.'s credit that he went a long way to meeting all of them. Davis was excellent at right guard as a true freshman, overwhelming opponents through sheer physical mastery. However, there is a bit of a stigma attached to playing inside. Tackle, and specifically left tackle, is the marquee position, where the future pros end up. Guards are just arguably tackles who can't hack it (there have been an increasing number of exceptions to this generalization, but it's consistently reinforced when busts like Robert Gallery can revitalize their career by sliding inside), or green underclassmen who still need their training wheels.

The real test was when he kicked outside last year. Considering that he was a true sophomore, Davis met and even exceeded expectations, effortlessly containing edge rushers and giving Mike Teel ample time to throw. The entire line struggled at run blocking early, but that improved in the second half of the year, and was probably a team effort. The only true red flag was when he and Kenny Britt were suspended for the early-season game against a FCS opponent. With the hard part over, it was easy to expect 2009 to be just a layup. Add a little polish, put the cherry on top, and voila; there goes the next Orlando Pace or Jonathan Ogden.

Unfortunately, 2009 was less than a banner campaign, as the play of the entire offensive line fell off a cliff. Davis was outright humiliated by Cincinnati's Ricardo Matthews in the opener. It was baffling to see him dominate against top competition one week, and then struggle the next. I think his early demotion in camp for being a few pounds over his target weight was a little overplayed, but that didn't do Anthony any favors when it came to the perception that he was dogging it, and only counting down the days until the NFL called. No one would even dare to call him a bust though, and I bet if you looked at the overall track record of top recruits, he's probably an overwhelming success.

It's hard to say whether expectations were too high. Even with him alternating between hot and cold, there's little doubt that Davis was by far the team's best lineman this season, by a fairly big margin in fact. Davis wasn't amazing in all facets last year, but grading on the expectations curve relative to his level of experience, I'd say that almost all fans were more than satisfied. Maybe he wouldn't turn into a road grader in the run game, but it was so disconcerting to see his pass blocking take such a step back at points this year. We had already seen he was capable of better. We know that, pound for pound, Anthony is one of the most gifted athletes in the country on any level, in any sport. Even though he was still the best lineman, Davis was naturally going to take the brunt of the criticism over another kid who may not have had his physical gifts, but undoubtedly was giving his all on every snap.

I'm not one of those people who holds players individually responsible for his team's success. Somehow, for years a myth persisted that the likes of Peyton Manning or Alex Rodriguez (or, McNabb, or insert your favorite example here) were responsible for their respective team's failures to win a championship, in spite of all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It's not Anthony's fault that Rutgers has been treading water for the past three years as an above-average team; he contributed a great deal to the success that they did have. However, he is ultimately responsible for how he performed on the field.

Davis was a very good player for Rutgers, even an elite one at times, but he never quite put all of his considerable gifts together for an entire season. In fact, his reputation takes a further hit compared to his immediate predecessor at left tackle; as Pedro Sosa was every bit as good in pass protection, and a far better run blocker to boot. Yes, every thing I ever post about the offensive line here has to have an obligatory Sosa reference to how awesome he was, and lament as to how raw of a deal he received following that '07 injury. It's almost comical that he never sniffed an AA team, and brilliant performers like Zuttah and Foster only received a smattering of support, but Davis received his share of token votes solely based on reputation and future potential.

As Anthony prepares for the next journey of his career (and make no mistake, I more than wish him well, and hope that he has a long and successful tenure in the pros), that's the one thing he can still hang his hat on: enormous, still mostly untapped potential. Having watched his competition at points, there's little doubt that Davis will blow all of those guys away in workouts and the Combine. As a fan of the pro game, and eager follower of the draft process, I know that he brings everything to the table in terms of size, frame, strength, agility, acceleration, and other attributes that NFL scouts look for when projecting into the future, even as frustrated as I have been with his inconsistent play at times this year. All of that has to be taken into consideration; even if there may have never been a moment, as there frequently were with Ray Rice and Kenny Britt, where anyone would have thought "wow, he could play in the pros now, and has absolutely nothing left to prove here."

Can anyone dispute that Anthony will be as good as he wants to be? I could see him landing in the Hall of Fame, or out of football in five years. It's that X factor which makes forecasting his future as pro so difficult. It's all on him. That's a brand of uncertainty that would make me a little nervous about having him on a pro team that I rooted for, and others that don't follow Rutgers may be able to see things a bit more objectively. Bias is a tricky thing, because sometimes you can end up not keep proper perspetive or appreciation. It's not just about being RutgersAl.

That being said, I hope that I've tried to given a fair look to both sides of the coin here. Anthony Davis is not an easy nut to crack. He's not a Britt, where you can just say that he's awesome, and things can be pretty much left at that. A.D. was an interesting player who had an interesting career, and I think those kinds of complex figures are a bit more compelling to think about than the superstars. There's an inherent drama to struggle, he's a role model for underachievers everywhere.

Davis, is, well, the kind of guy you can write 1,800 words on, as I just did, and feel like you haven't even started to scratch the surface. That my just be par for the course here, but it goes beyond just trying to thumb through a thesaurus trying to find new synonyms for "befuddlement". I want to know what it's like to be so much better than anyone else that there's a perpetual struggle to stay motivated. Mostly though, as anyone that lives vicariously through this violent sport knows, there's a dark recess in your mind that always wanted to get the rush from pancaking a two-hundred and fifty pound man, slamming his rear end flat into turf. That's the true secret of Anthony Davis, gone before our eyes without the hope of uncovering in a passing winter storm. God help us all if he ever sees fit to share it with the rest of the world.

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