Sports

Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis forging new identity with 49ers

Davis is going to run it all the way back! Auburn’s going to win the football game! Auburn’s going to win the football game! He ran the missed field goal back! He ran it back 109 yards! They’re not going to keep them off the field tonight! Holy cow! – Rod Bramblett, voice of Auburn football

There’s enough energy in that 2013 radio call to power the town of Opelika, Ala., for a decade. It’s a scene Auburn fans will remember for the rest of their lives and something they can replay – on YouTube, on video, in their heads – for a jolt of instant elation.

Chris Davis, however, has put it on mute.

It was Davis who, with a second remaining against No. 1-ranked Alabama and the score tied 28-28, caught the Crimson Tide’s 56-yard field-goal attempt nine yards deep in his own end zone and, 20 seconds later, was mobbed by teammates in the opposite end zone. Auburn 34, Alabama 28. Game over.

“An answered prayer!” according to CBS’ Verne Lundquist that day. The play has been dubbed “The Iron Bowl Miracle.”

It’s old news, according to Davis.

Now a cornerback in the NFL, he is desperate for new headlines, beginning with: “Davis makes 49ers’ final roster.”

“I try to walk away past that,” said Davis, a native of Birmingham, Ala. “Even though it’s going to be hard, I’m trying to leave a stamp on the NFL, make a name for myself in this league. And I’ve got to leave that in the past to do so.”

Davis was the 49ers’ top nickel cornerback in their first two preseason games, finishing with three deflected passes – one on fourth down – four tackles and a heap of praise from his coaches. He’s likely to be in the middle of the action Friday against a Green Bay Packers offense that tends to use three or more receivers.

The 49ers’ roster is teeming with young cornerbacks. They’ve drafted seven, including starter Jimmie Ward, in the past three years, which is why it was a mild surprise this spring when Davis got a chance to play nickel cornerback with the first-string defense.

Despite his collegiate heroics and the fact that he played against a collection of future NFL receivers in the Southeastern Conference, Davis went undrafted in 2014. It was a jolt to Davis, and he doesn’t let anyone forget the snub.

“I’ll never watch the draft again,” he said. “That hurt me. That hurt my family.”

The Chargers signed him as a free agent after the draft and he ended up appearing in 12 games — with some snaps as a nickel back — as a rookie. San Diego cut him in September last year and the 49ers grabbed him two months later.

When 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley was hired in the winter, he went over the scant plays – there were about 10 clips – of Davis at nickel back for the Chargers. He saw someone who at 5-foot-10 and 203 pounds didn’t have the height or long arms preferable for a cornerback. But Davis showed quick feet, used his hands well, and most of all, played with pugnacity.

“He does play with a chip on his shoulder, which you love as a coach,” Hafley said.

Nickel cornerbacks don’t just cover shifty receivers out of the slot. Because they line up so close to the trenches, they have to make tackles on running backs and occasionally blitz the passer.

“It jumped out on the tape that he had the ability,” Hafley said. “There weren’t enough plays to make a great decision. But in my mind I said, ‘The kid’s got a chance.’ 

The 49ers have experimented with all sorts of nickel-defense variations this offseason. Safety Eric Reid sometimes steps into the nickel role, which allows another high draft pick, safety Jaquiski Tartt, to be on the field. Ward, who played nickel cornerback the past two years, also has slid into his old spot on obvious passing downs this summer, which sends a different outside cornerback – Keith Reaser or Dontae Johnson – into the game.

Or perhaps coaches will decide that Davis’ preseason play-making ability will carry over into the regular season and that the prominent role will go to him.

Davis craves the new identity.

He noted that his face was hidden behind a helmet and facemask at Auburn for four years, and because of that he isn’t often recognized when he’s back in Alabama. But when people do realize who he is, the excitement – and selfie requests – explode.

At the end of a public practice at Denver last week, a group wearing Auburn jerseys was among the crowd of fans collecting autographs from the players filing off the field. Davis already was signing his name when it dawned on them the Iron Bowl hero was in their midst.

“She had to ask me, ‘Was I Chris Davis?’ ” he said. “She didn’t know.”

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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