Appalachian State’s Akeem Davis-Gaither was the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, and the Cincinnati Bengals selected the linebacker with the 107th pick in this year’s draft. Here are Davis-Gaither’s odds at Mybookie to win 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as well as the Bengals’ over/under win total.
Davis-Gaither’s father is Keith Gaither, who is the wide receivers coach for the Army Black Knights and a long-time assistant in the collegiate ranks. When Davis-Gaither committed to Appalachian State, the program was in the early stages of transitioning to the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision or FBS.
Davis-Gaither was just at two-star prospect coming out of high school so that he’s in the NFL is quite impressive. He played in two games briefly in 2015 for App State but then took a redshirt season.
In 2016, Davis-Gaither played in all 13 games and his performance came at New Mexico State, where he posted six solo tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss and a sack. He would finish with 16 total tackles (12 solo, four assists), 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a pass breakup. The next year, he played in all 13 again and started in a few, finishing with 33 tackles (24 solo).
Davis-Gaither really started to shine in 2018 when he was second-team All-Sun Belt. He started every game and had a team-leading 105 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and three quarterback hurries for a defense that ranked fourth nationally in points allowed per game. In addition, Davis-Gaither was No. 3 in the Sun Belt by averaging 9.0 tackles per game in league play during the regular season and tied for eighth nationally among non-defensive backs with the seven pass breakups. He also had three games with at least 14 tackles.
Then last year, the outside backer was Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-Sun Belt after posting 104 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, eight pass breakups, one interception (in the second half of the 34-31 win at North Carolina) and one blocked field goal (to end the UNC win). Davis-Gaither did all of that while dealing with a stress fracture in his foot. The fracture in his foot happened in the third game of 2019 and he played through it the rest of the year and at the Senior Bowl.
The Mountaineers used his above-average athleticism by blitzing him off the edge often. He was able to bend around or run by offensive tackles while rushing the passer, plus had the aggressiveness to fill holes against the run.
Davis-Gaither was part of just the fifth class in college football history to win five bowl games and four conference championships, joining five-year classes from Nebraska (1969-73), Alabama (1975-79), Florida State (1991-95) and Marshall (1988-2002).
He went 107th overall to the Bengals, whose coaches were in charge of the South team for which Davis-Gaither excelled as a captain during the Senior Bowl in late January. It’s the second-highest pick of a Sun Belt Conference linebacker in the history of the league, after only Arkansas State’s Demario Davis (No. 77 in 2012).
In the NFL, Davis-Gaither will need to play stronger to stay on the field on rushing downs and will need development in man-coverage. But he also Davis-Gaither fits the mold of a modern NFL linebacker perfectly. His speed and range allow him to stay on the field all three downs, where he can utilize those tools to cover running backs and tight ends out of the backfield.
“I always carry that chip on my shoulder, regardless of if I would have went in the second round, because I know there are people out there that are doubting me,” Davis-Gaither said. “I just want to prove them wrong. (At App State), that’s our motto.”
His position coach with the Bengals is former Miami Hurricanes head coach Al Golden. With four of his nine players rookies coming off senior seasons they were named captains, Golden is using leadership as a building block.