June 17, 2020

Emerging as Star in Senior Season for PU Football, Davidson Looking to Make the Cleveland Browns

BELIEVELAND: Kevin Davidson talks to a coach on the sideline last year last fall during his senior season for the Princeton University football team. Getting his chance to start last fall after three years as a reserve, Davidson emerged as a star, completing 209-of-313 passes for 2,569 yards and 20 touchdowns to help Princeton go 8-2 overall and 5-2 Ivy League. In April, he signed a free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns of the NFL and is currently preparing for training camp as he looks to make the team. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Kevin Davidson always believed that he was headed for the NFL even though many scoffed at that ambition during his first three years with the Princeton University football program.

Through his junior campaign at Princeton, Davidson, a 6’4, 225-pound quarterback from Danville, Calif., had made one start and had a grand total of 61 passing attempts in 19 appearances and didn’t seem to be on track to the pros.

“I got laughed at a lot on campus, both by my friends and other people, they are like you are crazy, who do you think you are, some backup that is going to go to the NFL,” said Davidson.

“I have been working for this my whole life and I know where I am at. I might not have gotten the opportunities at Princeton that I thought at first but I never lost belief and my vision for myself. It has been a thing for me ever since high school freshman year.”

Playing behind Chad Kanoff and John Lovett, who both ended up on NFL practice squads after their Tiger careers, Davidson got his opportunity to start last fall and made the most of it, completing 209-of-313 passes for 2,569 yards and 20 touchdowns to help Princeton go 8-2 overall and 5-2 Ivy League.

In April, Davidson realized his NFL dream, signing a free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns after the conclusion of the league’s 2020 draft.

As Davidson bided his time on the bench at Princeton, he never lost confidence in his abilities.

“It was a bit of a wait; I always felt like I could play,” said Davidson.

“In any industry, you have talent ahead of you and you have to be patient and wait your turn and learn from the people above you if they are worth learning from and then be ready for your chance. That is the approach that I took.”

Getting his chance to be the full-time starter, Davidson was superb from the beginning of the 2019 campaign, connecting in 18-of-21 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns in a 49-7 win over Butler in the season opener and then hitting on 29-of-37 passes for 381 yards and an Ivy League-record seven touchdowns in a 56-23 win over Bucknell a week later.

Sparked by Davidson’s heroics, the Tigers got off to an 8-0 start before falling to Dartmouth and Yale. Davidson and his classmates ended their careers on a high note by beating Penn 28-7 in the season finale.

“We obviously started out really hot against Butler, Bucknell,” said Davidson, who ended up earning All-Ivy
honorable mention honors.

“The win over Penn was special. The message the whole week was you have to finish strong. We were in a lull where we lost two in a row and we knew we needed to finish strong and that is what we did against Penn. It was a great moment for our class. Overall it was an incredible season, I am really thankful for the program.”

Princeton head coach Bob Surace was not surprised to see Davidson produce a special season once he got the starting job.

“He has been behind two other NFL players and he had  to patiently wait but during that process, he never stopped working hard and competing,” said Surace.

“He never gave up on his goals. He had a tremendous offseason last year and he continued to grow. Right away, he took over and played great football last year.”

Over the years, Surace had alerted NFL teams to Davidson’s passing prowess.

“We have had a lot of scouts at practice and every time somebody would come I would say watch No. 10, this guy has the strongest arm on our team, he is going to be something,” recalled Surace.

“They were coming early in the year last season and their jaws dropped at how well he threw the ball. Then they started coming back to the games and were watching him in person. I thought that there was a good chance that he was going to wind up somewhere.”

Days after the season ended, Davidson started focusing on earning a chance to compete at the pro level.

“I  got to work the day after I chose my agent, I stayed healthy through the season and it really helped because I was lucky enough to start training right away,” said Davidson, who did conditioning work at Parisi Speed School in Fairlawn, N.J. and quarterback training with Matt Simms, a former NFL quarterback and the son of legendary N.Y. Giants QB Phil Simms.

“There wasn’t a recovery period needed, it was let’s get started for everything that is coming.”

In January, Davidson impressed scouts with his performance on and off the field at the East-West Shrine Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“It was the first step along the way; that was the step that helped me get invited to the NFL Combine which has been a dream of mine since I was young,” said Davidson.

“I was only the second player ever invited from Princeton so I felt a lot of pride representing Princeton. I am really thankful to have both of those opportunities.”

In preparing for the East-West game, Davidson felt he was fitting in with the high level competition.

“I was coached by the Colts quarterback coach [Marcus Brady] so we were learning from him and just getting our feet wet in NFL systems,” said Davidson.

“I was talking to the Clemson receiver and getting to know how he likes to be thrown to and he loved what I was doing. We quickly bonded in that regard at a high level.”

Weeks later, Davidson faced another high-stakes situation as he participated in the NFL Combine from February 27-March 1 in Indianapolis.

“It is really awkward; you are performing what you have done forever but now you have a 70,000-person stadium with no one in it but you know you have every coach’s eye, every general manager’s eye, and every scout’s eye on you the whole time,” said Davidson, noting a highlight of the experience was running into NFL legends Peyton Manning and Archie Manning at dinner one night in Indy.

“It is a weird combination of you have all the attention on you but you also have no one in the stands. I am thankful for that experience too. I learned a lot about the interview process, getting quizzed by these quarterback coaches.”

With the COVID-19 outbreak closing things down weeks after the combine, Davidson had to scramble to move out of school and finish his thesis and classes virtually while keeping on the NFL radar.

“I got my pro day in right before we got kicked off campus,” said Davidson.

“Right before my pro day, they were saying you probably weren’t going to have your pro day. You have got to pack up your room, you have got to get out of here. I was juggling that as well as having to perform in front of these scouts. It was a very tumultuous few days, a lot of ups and downs, hearing things from the administration and hearing things from people. This whole situation has been very hectic for everyone. I am just happy to be healthy and my family is healthy. That is all I really care about.”

With the NFL Draft taking place virtually from April 23-25, Davidson sensed that he would end up with a team one way or another.

“My agents told me a few days before the draft that I was a sixth, seventh round or high priority free agent grade,” said Davidson.

“The third day was definitely stressful. At that point in the draft, you almost would rather be a free agent than drafted because you can choose where you go. I got into a great situation with Cleveland.”

An Ivy connection helped Davidson decide to sign with the Browns.

“There were quite a bit of factors; coach [Kevin] Stefanski was a huge reason why I went there,” said Davidson.

“He is a Penn guy. He called me during the draft and said we would love to have you and get in you in here. We think there is a lot of opportunity and upward mobility for you.”

Since joining the Browns, Davidson has been toiling virtually from California to get up to speed as he prepares for training camp which is currently slated to start in late July.

“A typical day is you hop on Zoom and you have initiations as far as security and how insurance works, the basics for rookies,” said Davidson.

“From there, you go into position meetings with the coaches and learn the offense. Then the rest of the day, it is studying and trying to get the playbook under control. It is a lot of hours but I have really enjoyed it.”

As he looks ahead to competing for a spot on the roster, Davidson is maintaining a step-by-step approach.

“It is just be consistent and get to know the coaches really well, get to know my teammates really well and just be a great teammate,” said Davidson, noting that he has been in frequent contact with former Tiger teammate and current Browns tight end Stephen Carlson as they work on mastering the team’s offensive system under new head coach Stefanski.

“I think once you get to know the offense, everything is going to flow smoothly in practice and you are going to perform. You can’t focus too much on your end goals, you have that in mind obviously but you have to focus on the day to day.”

Since things didn’t always go smoothly for Davidson at Princeton, he will draw on that experience as he looks to get on the field for the Browns.

“It wasn’t always the easiest but I think I learned a lot about myself,” said Davidson.

“I am going to apply those lessons to the NFL where I am going to be behind Baker Mayfield and Case Keenum who are two tremendous players. I am going to keep pushing to be a backup and then getting to be a starter.”

In the view of Surace, Davidson’s work ethic and persistence should serve him well at the next level.

“Not only do you have the coaches who are developing quarterbacks but he will be having a veteran player who is going to be standing next to him at every practice and every meeting; I know Kevin will be a sponge,” said Surace.

“He is just going to learn so much. As he learns a new language, a new system and all of those things, it should be a chance for him, hopefully during training camp in the evaluation periods, to show the things he can do and that he is ready to be a young emerging player as a backup in the NFL.”

Davidson, for his part, feels he has only scratched the surface of his capabilities.

“I don’t think I have gotten near my peak,” said Davidson. “Coach Stefanski and coach [Alex] Van Pelt are two great coaches who are going to really help me develop. I am really excited to reach my potential.”