CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee -- The memory of being a football orphan is still fresh for Davis Tull. When national signing day came and went his senior year at Bearden High School without a single call, Tull recognized the harsh reality -- nobody wanted him.
That somber experience has been his source of inspiration for four years, driving Tull to become the most decorated player in University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football history."It gets me flustered even now, thinking about all the people that didn't want me," said Tull, the All-American name on a Mocs roster that has higher expectations than ever before heading into Thursday's season opener at Central Michigan. "All of that added a lot of fuel to my fire. I feel like I have to prove myself to a lot of people."
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior is the first UTC player to earn Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors twice. He's the Mocs career leader with 26.5 sacks and was recently named to the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, given annually to the nation's top FCS defensive player.
He is also the first Academic All-American in UTC football history.
"There's a lot of people who believe now, but I still feel like there's even more people that don't," Tull said. "They know my name now, and it's been satisfying to go through the league and show a lot of teams that they should have offered me and proving them wrong for giving up on me."
There was a time when Tull nearly gave up on himself. Less than a week into the start of preseason camp his freshman year, frustration led Tull to an impulsive decision -- he was going to quit the game he loved, return home to Knoxville to find a job, be an ordinary college student and hope to find a new passion.
"When I got here I was a nobody. They didn't even know my name," Tull said. "I was convinced I would get a scholarship but the only offers I got were to walk on and be a scrub. I just thought maybe it's not for me anymore and I was wondering 'What am I doing here?'"
But then defensive line coach Marcus West began using his skill as a top-notch recruiter to convince the fed-up freshman to stay.
"We had argued during a coaches meeting about whether he would be a tight end or defensive end and I won out because I needed another body," West said. "I didn't really know much about him, other than once we got on the field he could run like a gazelle.
"I asked him to be patient, keep working and he would have the chance to prove himself."Given a new sense of purpose, Tull became a scout team star at defensive end, redshirting that first year, then starting all 34 games of his career since. He became only the second sophomore in SoCon history to earn player of the year honors when he led the league with 12.5 sacks.
Food poisoning caused him to miss most of the week's practice leading up to last year's opener, but he still played every defensive snap against UT-Martin and ended his junior season with seven sacks in the Mocs' final seven games, including a career-high 3.5 sacks in a rout of Furman.
"Anytime you have a player with his combination of ability and drive you've got something special," said Furman coach Bruce Fowler. "He's so tenacious. You never game plan for just one guy, but certainly we try to know where Davis Tull is on every snap. It's like he's playing with something to prove."
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“No, coach, it's broke”
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There was no question the leg was broken. Tull lay flat on his back, looking up at the glare of the stadium lights and realized his promising senior season at Knoxville's Bearden High School was over before it had even begun.
Midway through the first half of the second game of the season Tull caught the Jefferson County quarterback from behind on an option play and tried to body slam him to the ground. But with his right leg still planted in the turf, the torque of the twisting motion snapped Tull's femur and the reality of what just happened set in before trainers and coaches rushed onto the field to check on him.
"I tried to lie to him and tell him it might be just twisted," said former Bearden coach Brad Taylor. "He looked up and said, 'No, coach, it's broke'. And then he closed his eyes and said, 'I just want to play football.' I had to look away because I had tears in my eyes. I knew how hard that kid had worked to make himself the player he was and now it was all over right there."
Tull, who was scheduled to take his official visit to Memphis the next day to watch the Tigers' game against Ole Miss, instead had a steel rod surgically inserted into his leg. He spent the next three weeks bedridden and the college interest he had worked so hard to build began to fade as one by one the recruiters stopped calling once news spread of how seriously he had been injured.
"I remember one call where the coach asked how I was and when I told him how badly I had broken my leg there was silence on the phone and he just hung up," Tull said.
The night before national signing day, Tull was told by a Georgia Southern assistant that they might still have a scholarship left for him and that they would let him know the next day. The day came and went and Tull watched teammates sign scholarship papers while his phone remained silent. He even called the football office at Georgia Southern but his message was not returned. If he wanted to play at the collegiate level, his only remaining option was to walk on.
"The recruiting process was pretty ruthless," said Tull, who was asked to walk on by coaches at Furman, Memphis, Middle Tennessee State, Vanderbilt and UTC, with the idea being to let him prove he was fully recovered from the injury without the potential for wasting a scholarship if he wasn't.
The tuition at Vanderbilt and Furman was too expensive, while Memphis and MTSU were going through coaching changes, so Tull decided to stay close to home and come to Chattanooga.
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“I won't see anybody as good as Davis on game day”
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Even as a 2-year old, when he announced to the adults sitting poolside that he was going to jump off the diving board by himself then did so and swam to the edge, Tull had always known how to put ambition into action.
"He's more competitive with himself than other people," said Tull's mother, Amy Bailey. "He doesn't say, 'I want to be better than this guy;' he just wants to see how far he can go."
The active leader among FCS defenders in sacks and forced fumbles, Tull also ranks second in tackles for loss, but his voice is rarely heard on the practice field.
He was so introverted growing up that when he was 6 he stopped playing tee-ball because he didn't like having people watching him. He wouldn't speak in class for the first three months of kindergarten and spent much of his childhood skateboarding and limiting sports to the backyard.But his perfectionist nature and intensity set an example far beyond words for teammates.
"He's really got a different speed than you're used to on the defensive line. He moves like a freak," said Mocs sophomore offensive lineman Corey Levin. "I firmly believe I won't see anybody as good as Davis on game day."
During SoCon media day, while players from other teams mingled and traded stories, Tull sat alone at a table, his leg bouncing anxiously. He explained later that while he respects his opponents, he saw no reason to interact with them.
Aside from school -- he has a 3.5 grade-point average, needing only one hour this fall to graduate with honors -- and the occasional break to play video games, Tull has no hobbies outside of working out and football. He's even been known to get in extra workouts in hotel rooms while on road trips.
"He's the prototype," West said. "I tell the young guys to take advantage of having him here for one more year. He's an All-American, but he still feels overlooked -- like somebody out there doesn't know about him.
"He's self-motivated because he's always had to get things the hard way. He carries this grudge with him wherever he goes. That's why he'll always be successful at any level. He'll have a career in the NFL because it'll come the hard way for him, and that's going to continue driving him."
Tull is rated the No. 19 outside linebacker by NFLDraftscout.com and is the 28th best player at his position nationally according to Phil Steele's preseason publication, the only FCS player listed.
But his NFL draft stock and any individual recognition are not at the top of his priority list as Tull prepares for his final collegiate season, one in which the Mocs have an all-time high national ranking and soaring expectations.
"There's only one thing left for me, and that's to win the national championship," Tull said. "I think anything else is unacceptable. This is my last year so why not say that's what I'm playing for? I'm not shy about it. I've got one chance to do it, and I've gotten where I am by dreaming big.
"That's what I have left to prove to myself. It's already a pretty cool story for me, but to get that national championship my senior year would just take it from great to legendary, and that's the goal."