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Home / NFL / 2020 NFL Draft: App State’s Darrynton Evans, Akeem Davis-Gaither explain their journeys, what sets them apart

2020 NFL Draft: App State’s Darrynton Evans, Akeem Davis-Gaither explain their journeys, what sets them apart

2020 NFL Draft: App State's Darrynton Evans, Akeem Davis-Gaither explain their journeys, what sets them apart

The Mountaineer teammates are expected to be drafted next week

Appalachian State has had one season with seven wins or fewer since 2005. The Sun Belt conference team tucked away in Boone, North Carolina has been one of the most consistent programs in college football across the last decade.

In less than a week, linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither and running back Darrynton Evans are expected to be drafted into the NFL. They both have similar stories, which could offer a bit of insight into the Mountaineers' program-building philosophy.

"I've been around football my whole life. My older brother played. I remember him playing Pop Warner and me being 2, 3, 4 years old running around out there on the practice field during their practices," Evans told CBSSports.com. "I've always been around the game. We have had a lot of great players come through. We have a couple in the NFL right now."

Evans' cousin, D'Cota Dixon, is a safety for the Buccaneers. He is also close with Redskins linebacker Cole Holcomb and 49ers running back Raheem Mostert, who he described as an older brother, dating back to their time in Oak Hill, Florida.

The running back has a story that resonates with many people coming from a small town.

"I worked too hard to get to where I'm at to not put my best foot forward," Evans said. "My town of Oak Hill is a very small city. I am almost related to everyone in the city. We have one flashing light, one Dollar General, one gas station and a flea market, that's it. I have a lot of people behind me and a lot of people looking up to me. Why would I want to let them down and at the same time let myself down when I've been working too hard to get to where I'm at?"

He was not a heralded recruit or a player that could have played anywhere in the country, but he did find a home in Boone and that path led him to the NFL.

"They took a chance on me," Evans said of Appalachian State. "I was the lowest rated recruit coming out of high school in my signing class. My top two schools were South Florida and App State. They both offered me my junior year. One of the coaches that was at South Florida has been recruiting my area for a long time now. I knew his face because he had recruited my older cousin and some older guys at my school. That same coach at USF ended up going to App State my senior year. It was kind of a double positive with him going to App State. It was just the right fit."

Like most high school recruits, Evans played the game of going from camp to camp trying to gain notoriety. Then, he was only 5-foot-8. One camp in particular provided him with some motivation.

"Coming out of high school, I went to a North Carolina camp. They said that I was too small and I didn't have the size that they were looking for at running back," Evans said. "One of the coaches at App State was working the camp. App State had already offered me. We already had a good relationship. I think I ran a 4.4 at that camp too. The coach was like, 'You're amazing,' and all that. I ended up being the best running back at the entire camp, but at the end of the camp, 'You're too small,' this and that."

Davis-Gaither was also undersized. He played almost every sport from baseball to basketball to football to track and field. He was not looking to hit the camp circuit hard though.

"The bigger schools kind of backed off when I was coming out of high school because I was only 175 [pounds]," Davis-Gaither said.

The feeling of disrespect or being underrated is new to a lot of prospects during the draft process because their paths as four and five-star recruits were paved with praise and recognition. That's not the case for Evans and Davis-Gaither.

"It's something that we are kind of used to. A lot of teams are just looking at the name on the helmet or the last name. We are definitely going to play with a chip on our shoulder because if we were at another school, the situation would be a complete 180," Evans said.

Appalachian State welcomed them despite what many others might interpret as limitations.

"They care about speed and heart. There are some big guys out there [that don't have our speed and heart]," Davis-Gaither said.

The 2015 and 2016 seasons brought an average of 10.5 wins per season and two Camellia Bowl victories over MAC opponents. Davis-Gaither redshirted the first year while Evans used his in 2017. Evans played some wide receiver while he waited his turn behind Marcus Cox and Jalin Moore, who is now with the Jets.

"Every season, every fall camp, [Satterfield] would say whatever your role is for this team, I want you to find your role and be the best at your role as you can be," Evans said. "If my role for a team next year is to be a backup or a role player, third-down back, change-up back, I am fine with that. As long as I'm doing what I need to do, more opportunities will come."

After his sophomore season in 2017, Davis-Gaither received news that he would become a father.

"Knowing that I was becoming a father at the end of my sophomore season and just going through my junior season as a new dad [was difficult]," Davis-Gaither said. "I had to reset my priorities and look at my life as a father. I am not an average football player on a team. I got other responsibilities at home.

"It definitely helped me grow as a man. I started to look at life a little differently because I have someone else depending on me other than myself. It opened my eyes to a new life, a better life. I feel like it definitely changed me in ways. I am working for something bigger than myself."

During his junior season, Davis-Gaither was named a second-team All-Sun Belt selection after compiling 105 tackles, including 10 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. On the other side of the ball, Evans had seen an uptick in his own production. In just eight starts, he was able to accumulate 1,187 yards and seven touchdowns on 179 carries as well as 12 receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown. The Mountaineers went 11-2 with a convincing 45-13 New Orleans Bowl victory over Middle Tennessee State.

After the season, Satterfield was presented with a head coaching offer at the University of Louisville. He accepted.

Appalachian State handed the job over to NC State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Eliah Drinkwitz, a promising young coach down the road.

"Being a player-led team, you can ask any player at App State, any coach that has come through App State, they will say the same thing," Evans said. "It does not matter who is calling the plays, who is on the sideline with us. It is a matter of us doing what we are coached to do and sticking together. That is what we are going to do."

Entering his final season as a college football player, Evans received a phone call that no child, or person for that matter, wants to receive.

"Two weeks after my birthday in July, my mom found out that she had cancer," Evans said. "It was kind of tough being 600 miles away from home while she's down here dealing with that and I was still having to focus on school and focus on athletics. That was her main thing is don't lose focus over my problems that I'm going through right now.

"It was tough but at the same time it was not that bad because her focus was on trying to see when she was going to be able to make it to my next game. That really showed me that she is a tough woman. She had her faith in something higher than her. She ended up missing about half of my season. The first game that she was able to come back to after her last procedure was on Halloween night. After she made it to that game, she was at every game whether it was home or away; that really meant a lot to me. My mom is doing good now. She is cancer free."

The 2019 season was special for the players and the program. They rattled off victories in 13 of their 14 games, including wins over Power 5 teams North Carolina and South Carolina. Evans thought back to his camp experience with the Tar Heels.

"After the North Carolina game, [recruiting coordinator and tight ends] coach [Justin] Watts came up to me and was like, 'You remember the North Carolina camp and they told you that you were too small? You see you just put three touchdowns on them and just put a win on them,'" Evans said. "That's all he was saying all week. 'Don't forget what they did to you in high school. Don't forget what they said about you.' Even against South Carolina, I went to a Florida camp when Will Muschamp was there. Same thing, 'You're too small, you don't meet our criteria.' Ended up, I put 150 yards up on his defense. I love playing against teams that overlook me."

It was no coincidence that the Mountaineers' successful season coincided with remarkable individual performances from two of its stars and leaders. Davis-Gaither finished with 101 tackles, five sacks, an interception and eight pass deflections. Evans had 255 carries for 1,480 yards and 18 touchdowns as well as 21 receptions for 198 yards and five touchdowns.

Their time playing together may have come to an end, but the respect that they carry for one another will not. When asked about the other, each was smiling through the phone and could not heap enough praise on his teammate.

"He is a freak of nature," Evans said of the linebacker. "It is really hard to describe him. I remember coming in my freshman and sophomore year and him running with us during conditioning. He is a linebacker but he is running with the skill group and beating half of the skill group — stuff like that stood out. Throughout the year, he was putting on more weight, more size and more muscle but he was maintaining speed. It was just wild.

"To see him on the field and then practicing against him, it was like yeah, I'm glad I do not have to play against him on Saturday. The things that he does in the game, everyone is so amazed with it but that is only half of it. Some of the crazy plays that he makes in practice, on offense you're mad, like there ain't no way that he is supposed to do this. But he always finds a way to be in the right spot at the right time."

Davis-Gaither reciprocated the praise.

"He is definitely a playmaker, one of the best guys on the team," Davis-Gaither said of the running back. "You want to get him out in space so he can make guys miss. He is hard to get down."

There was some disagreement, however, on who would win should they meet in the gap at the next level.

"I'm winning," Evans said laughing, before I could finish the question. "It's going to be a dog fight. There are going to be some pads clacking but at the end of the day, I'm going to do whatever it takes to get that extra yard or two to get into the end zone."

Davis-Gaither was similarly confident.

"I think he knows that answer," the linebacker said. "I would definitely stop Darrynton in the hole."

When the season concluded, both had earned an invitation to the NFL combine held in February. Davis-Gaither received an additional offer to compete at the Reese's Senior Bowl. Through both opportunities, the players were able to get in front of teams and share why they should be drafted.

"I really wanted them to know that I'm a competitor, a smart player," Evans said. "I have a passion for it. I'm going to do my best to get on the field and make the most out of every opportunity."

"I am confident in my game and I know football," Davis-Gaither said. "A lot of guys coming from smaller schools, their game might be smaller than what the NFL is about. I won't have an issue learning the playbook and definitely know football."

Evans, who said that he modeled his game after Percy Harvin growing up and Christian McCaffrey more recently, ran a 4.41 second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. He jumped 37 inches vertically and 125 inches broadly. Although impressive, Evans knows that he could have done better.

"I actually wasn't even happy with my workout," Evans said. "As crazy as it sounds, I was looking to run somewhere in the 4.3s. I was right there knocking on the door but I didn't hit it, so that's on me. On the vertical, I was trying to jump 38, 39, so that's on me. I did good in the field work but I still feel like I could have done better.

"I feel like I helped my draft stock during the week with my interviews. They were picking my brain, seeing what kind of player I am on the field and the kind of knowledge that I bring to the game. After going through the interviews, most teams were like, 'Man, you really know football. You sound like you want to be a coach one day.' I was like, 'Yeah, I do.' By me playing running back and wide receiver, I could tell them what all 11 players have to do. I take pride in that. It helps me play a lot faster and slows the game down for me."

The running back has had meetings with the Colts, Rams, Bills, Texans, Cowboys, 49ers, Jaguars, Falcons, Chargers, Eagles, Steelers, Chiefs, Buccaneers, Broncos, Jets, Cardinals, Bears and Lions. Before the quarantine travel ban came down, he had taken a visit to the Titans' team headquarters.

Davis-Gaither sat out most of the drills at the combine while he was nursing a foot injury. After having surgery to repair a partial stress fracture in his right foot back in March, he was able to return to return to doing squats this past Monday. Doctors expected him to be available for OTAs, but the timeline is all a bit hazy with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The third round seems like the sweet spot for him to land. Davis-Gaither, who modeled his game after Devin Bush, knows there is an increasing need for linebackers capable of covering sideline to sideline.

"I feel like the speed on offense started to increase the speed on defense as well," Davis-Gaither said. "That is something that I bring to the table is speed. That is really all I did in college was cover in space and make plays in space. That is my style of play to play in space and make plays."

He mentioned that he has had a virtual interview with teams about every other day. He was able to meet with several teams at the NFL combine but specifically mentioned the Browns, Bengals, Texans, Rams, 49ers, Giants and Raiders.

No one knows where Evans or Davis-Gaither will be selected next week, but we do know that they will remember every team that passes them up. Once relatively unknown, the teammates now have a chance to make a name for themselves on the game's biggest stage.

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