Standing in UCLA’s end zone with rain pelting down and 83,277 onlookers at the Rose Bowl, Roosevelt Davis was about to return his first-ever kickoff, against the crosstown Trojans no less.
“They called my name, my number,” said Davis, a redshirt freshman walk-on, before pausing and cracking a wide smile. ”I was nervous. … It was my first one and I was back there, but I was also confident because I believed in (special teams) coach (Jeff) Ulbrich’s scheme.”
Davis darted forward, picking up 21 yards on the first and only return of his career in UCLA’s 38-28 win over USC last season. The receiver hopes it won’t be his last.
This play – the culmination of extra hours after practice, the time spent redshirting as a freshman and his work on the special teams kickoff coverage unit – coupled with a landmark win against UCLA’s rival signified the biggest moment of Davis’ time in Westwood so far. Despite that, the walk-on will enter this season competing, as always, for time as a kick returner and a receiver against an influx of new players.
With spring football beginning April 2, Davis wants to use these first practices as a springboard to a having a bigger impact on the team.
“Spring football is definitely where you showcase your skills, and it’s where you want to make a name for yourself so that you build that confidence within your coaches … that you are able to do this job,” Davis said.
When Davis first came to Westwood, he played cornerback. Last season, under first-year coach Jim Mora, he was one of many Bruins who changed positions. Now heading into spring ball, Davis believes not having to learn a new position will free him up to do other things.
“It’s about learning and being smarter in the game, and improving on the little things,” he said.
Playing time for Davis is not guaranteed. With a deep group of receivers, Davis will have to be patient and wait for his opportunity. At 5 feet 6 inches, the walk-on has had to work for everything he’s gotten at UCLA. It was that way for Davis even before he got to school.
“He’s always had to work twice as hard as the next man because of his size,” said Roosevelt Davis III, his father. “We’ve always stressed to him that the word ‘can’t’ doesn’t exist … anything and everything is possible for him.”
In addition to size, Davis had to work to overcome another setback early in his UCLA career. While redshirting, he suffered a turf toe injury, which forced him to miss a month of practice as a freshman. It was the worst experience he’s had, and not necessarily because of the physical pain. As a walk-on, Davis’ grip on a roster spot is conditional on him contributing to the team. For a short amount of time, he wasn’t able to.
“I didn’t want them to forget about me,” Davis said of sitting out. “It was nerve-wracking.”
Davis came back from the injury though, winning the Charles Pike Memorial Award for Outstanding Scout Team Player his freshman year. This season, he became a key cog on the special teams kickoff coverage unit.
To not only be a part of the team as it knocked off the crosstown Trojans, but to be able to have the ball in his hands and contribute to the Bruins’ winning effort was special for Davis.
“I hadn’t even dreamed of that, so it was really cool, a blessing … the best experience I’ve had,” he said.
Davis’ big moment did not go unnoticed by his teammates either.
“He worked hard all season – extra kickoffs after practice, doing whatever he could to just get the opportunity to get a chance to be back there to catch a kickoff – and he got that chance and made the most of it,” said redshirt junior running back Jordon James.
With spring football fast approaching, Davis hopes the work he’s put in translates to even more.
“I like to be able to be relied on even as a walk-on, so I want to – especially this upcoming year – make more of an impact towards the football team, not just special teams, but on all different phases of the game, whatever phase the coach needs me (in),” Davis said.