LOGAN — Sometimes the difference between good and great is razor thin.
For Utah State cornerback Will Davis, that difference was just a matter of believing it was possible.
In 2011, Davis had a fine year in his first season as an Aggie. Playing mostly as the nickel cornerback, the Spokane, Wash., native posted respectable numbers, recording 35 tackles and six pass break-ups. As the season went along, the junior college transfer became more comfortable with the increase in speed and physicality at the Division I level, saving some of his best games for the end of the season.
For a lot of players, the gradual improvement would have been enough. Not for Davis.
After returning from winter break, head coach Gary Andersen met with everyone on the team for individual meetings. His sit-down with Davis was especially memorable, a meeting that Andersen points to as the day Davis turned the corner.
"I'm not taking credit for his success here, but I think he changed when we sat down. I challenged Willie, Willie challenged himself to be great," Andersen said. "He committed to me that he wanted to not be a good corner, but be a great corner and prepare himself to be as good as he could for his team and prepare himself for the next level."
What was Andersen's response to Davis wanting to become great?
"I told him 'OK, that's great, but now I'm going to coach you like that every single day because that's what you said you wanted.' Willie accepted that in his own mind and I think that was the real turning point," the Aggies' coach said.
Davis accepted the challenge and the extra tough love from Andersen and committed himself throughout the offseason. In fall camp, he quickly asserted himself as a leader and the prime candidate to have a breakout season on Andersen's defense while his confidence grew every day.
"I think for me it was being confident in myself and being confident in my game and learning the game of football a little bit better. There were times where I thought 'Maybe I'm giving the guy on the other side of the ball a little too much credit.' This year I came in knowing that it doesn't matter who's in front of me, you have to know you are better than them," Davis said. "I came into every game knowing I'm just as good if not better than these guys."
Now the Aggies' shutdown corner, Davis' numbers are far and away better across the board. Heading into Saturday's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Davis already has 56 tackles and 16 pass break-ups. His impact on the USU defense, drawing the opponent's top receiver every week, has drawn national attention. Senior Bowl representatives invited Davis out to the postseason all-star game and CBSsports.com named him a third-team All-American, which has only served to increase the confidence level for the once-uncertain cornerback.
While the tackles and pass breakups have been nice, it's the interceptions Davis has collected that have really turned heads, reeling off a streak of five straight games with a takeaway. The picks, much like the rest of Davis' game, have come as the confidence has grown. Early in the season, several would-be interceptions dropped harmlessly from his hands and onto the turf, but once he held onto one against New Mexico State, he hasn't dropped one since.
"I don't think it will stop now," Davis said about the possibility of extending the interception streak to six in the Aggies' matchup with Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. "We are facing a team that passes the ball. If I get a chance I'll get an interception again."
Davis' assuredness — a swagger that, thanks to his good natured attitude, doesn't reach cockiness — has helped put him on NFL draft boards following the season and is a big reason the Utah State defense is ranked eighth-stingiest in the nation when it comes to opponents' scoring. All of this success is stemming from an offseason meeting and a personal commitment to be a better player.
"The thing Willie has done is make the decision that he wants to be a great football player … I knew that Willie was a special athlete and I always thought he was a special young man. He's put it all together," Andersen said. "I'm very proud of his accomplishments."
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
No. 18 Utah State (10-2, 6-0 WAC) vs. Toledo (9-3, 6-2 MAC)
Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
Bronco Stadium, Boise, Idaho
Radio: Utah State Sports Network