Casey Smith has helped mentor a number of National Football League players during his coaching career. There’s Brandon Faycson, a cornerback for the Indianapolis Colts, and Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton. And most recently, defensive tackle C.J. Brewer signed with the Buffalo Bills.
Smith, now the head coach at Union Grove High School outside of Atlanta, believes his current linebacker Julien Davis has the talent to someday join that trio.
“He’s definitely got the capability to do that if he keeps developing as a student-athlete,” Smith said.
That’s great news for East Carolina, which secured a verbal commitment from Davis back on June 25. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder chose the Pirates over an offer list that also included Charlotte, Connecticut, Georgia State, Indiana, Memphis, Tennessee, South Florida and Western Kentucky.
Smith was serving as defensive coordinator at another Atlanta metro school, Sandy Creek, when he was hired as head coach for Union Groves in February 2020. Davis had already established himself as a player with great potential as a freshman while splitting time between the varsity and junior varsity squads. In his varsity debut against Strong Rock Christian Academy that year, Davis recorded nine tackles in a 42-13 win. He wound up playing in five varsity contests, making 27 total tackles.
The COVID-19 shutdown occurred soon after Smith took over at Union Grove, so his early contact with Davis was limited. But his initial impression was very positive.
“When I saw him for the first time I was like, ‘Hey, he looks like the guys I had at Sandy Creek,”’ Smith said. “We always had five to seven Division I prospects every year, and he looked just like one of those guys except he was a 10th grader. He had that body frame on him.”
Davis moved into a starting varsity job at middle linebacker as a sophomore before transitioning into a dual role last season. In addition to his defensive duties, Davis also saw action at running back on offense. As a defender, Davis was named to the Georgia High School Association’s All-Region 4-5A first team and received honorable mention all-state honors from Georgia Recruit.
College recruiters began to take notice last spring, including East Carolina running backs coach Chris Foster.
“I’ve known coach Foster for 40 years at other places he’s been,” Smith said. “When he came down in the spring, East Carolina hadn’t offered Julien yet. I was like, ‘Coach, ya’ll are messing up.’ He was like, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you better jump on him because you’re going to be missing out.’
“So, Coach Foster saw him and talked to him. I respect Coach Foster a lot and he does a great job of recruiting. I know one of his big things is trying to get more Georgia kids up there on their roster.”
Foster and defensive coordinator Blake Harrell led ECU’s pursuit of Davis, which started with an offer June 8th and an official campus visit June 23rd.
That the Pirates would become Davis’s ultimate choice came as no surprise to Smith.
“I would ask him periodically, ‘Who would be your top five?”’ Smith said. “He’s rattled off some of these big schools like Clemson or Tennessee. But three different times one of the five schools was East Carolina. I would just chuckle and go, ‘Why East Carolina?’ He’d just look at me, smile and say, ‘Coach, I really just like their uniforms.’
“Obviously, it was about more than that. But he’s always had an interest in East Carolina.”
Davis has gotten off to a strong start to the 2022 season. He had 42 tackles and just one missed tackle in a 2-2 start for Union Grove. On offense, Davis piled up 409 yards and three touchdowns on 68 rushes. In week four against Jackson, Davis rushed 18 times for 156 yards and a score.
But while Davis is racking up impressive numbers on offense, he’s expected to play defense at East Carolina.
“I think his future is at a (line) backer position,” Smith said. “I think he’s an inside linebacker. He’s a 3-4 inside linebacker and a 4-3 MIKE linebacker, and possibly a SAM because he runs so well. He’s got a little versatility and he can do a couple of things. He’s a big-bodied kid who is extremely athletic.”
A video of Davis executing a power clean of 330 pounds in July went viral and has garnered more than 50,000 views to date.
But more than anything, Davis is a quality person, according to Smith.
“First thing I tell recruiters is he is a culture fit,” Smith said. “He’s a team guy, 100 percent. He’s here every day and is a very positive role model and leader for our team and our school. He’s just a great person.”