Ashtyn Davis cleared a lot of hurdles on the way to playing football for Cal

Jeff Faraudo

Ashtyn Davis found track and field by accident, never expecting he could become an All-America hurdler at Cal. But he immediately realized the sport could be a path to his ultimate goal.

“I always saw track as a way to get me to the football team,” said Davis, a junior safety for the Bears, whose track and field eligibility at Cal ended last spring.

Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter is happy the way things have worked out.

“Now he’s mentally become a football player. In the spring, he really owned the position. He’s worked at his craft of understanding the nuances of it,” DeRuyter said. “I really like his progress. I think he can be one of the better safeties in our league.”

A native of Santa Cruz, Davis played football all four years in high school, joining the track team on a lark his junior year to line up with football teammates for a relay. He became a full-fledged track team member as a senior at Santa Cruz High, where his coach entered him in the hurdles at an early-season meet.

When he beat the team’s best hurdler, a new career path was born.

Davis wound up finishing fifth in both the 110-meter high hurdles and the 300 intermediates at the 2014 California state meet. He wanted to keep running in college and made inquiries at both Cal and Cal Poly.

He was offered the chance to walk on as a non-scholarship athlete at both. 

“I thought I could compete at a Division I level. I thought I could do something big here,” he said, explaining his decision to attend Cal.

Photos by Al Sermeno, KLC Photos

Always, there was an ulterior motive. After arriving on campus, Davis said he began emailing Andrew McGraw, Assistant AD/Director of Football Administration. It was the only football office email address he could locate.

Davis estimates he sent as many as 10 emails to McGraw before getting a response. After sharing a videotape of his offensive highlights, Davis was told he could try out for defensive back. “I said, `Cool.’”

He joined the football team in the fall of 2016, got thrown in the deep end a couple times and struggled at cornerback. The coaching staff, looking for speed and athleticism, moved the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder to safety in the spring of 2017.

In the meantime, Davis began to excel on the track. A 110-meter high-hurdle specialist, he ran 13.50 seconds in 2017, the No. 3 time in school history. He earned first-team All-America honors indoors last season, then second-team outdoors in the spring.

But the arc of his football career also improved last fall, when he started the final six games at safety and ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in kickoff return average as a sophomore.

Cal coach Justin Wilcox said Davis is now able to focus on the details of playing safety, including being able to anticipate what’s coming from the opposition and even baiting them into changing the play call.

“Now it’s just becoming more of an expert playing safety. He’s got a lot of physical tools and he’s got courage, he’s physical,” Wilcox said. “It’s the game within the game — that’s what we want from all of our guys, but you see that with him.”

So with his collegiate track and field eligibility complete, Davis had to make the same decision that faced former Oregon wide receiver and hurdling star Devon Allen. Allen picked track and qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Davis discussed the choice with Allen, but decided his passion was football.

His track future? “Right now it’s not really on my radar until I pursue all my opportunities with football,” Davis said.

No longer juggling the two sports will make training for football more efficient. Track athletes perfect running straight; football players must make changes of direction, and stops and starts.

Davis won’t say track hurt his football preparation, but his routine the past two years involved shuttling back and forth from spring football workouts to track practice and meets.

“It just feels like I’m a little bit behind when I come back to football after guys have been training for months,” he said. “I don’t know who I would be if I was able to do everything they’re doing.”

Maybe not, but Torre Becton, Cal football’s head strength and conditioning coach, has a sense of what Davis can become.

“Getting him into a true offseason, where he’s getting as many cycles to train as the other guys, that’s really, really exciting to think about,” Becton said. “You’ll see a huge difference. The sky’s the limit.”

Davis is fired up to see what he can do without a distraction.

“Obviously, when you split your time you can’t perfect one craft,” he said. “That’s why I’m excited I can finally put all my energy in football and be the best.”