By Billy Watkins
With a good sense of humor, he estimates that people get his name backward “at least once a week.”
It’s Davis Dalton.
And I just had to check to make sure I had it the right way.
But you can bet it was listed correctly among the University of Southern Mississippi’s early football signees last week. And I believe head coach Will Hall and the Golden Eagles got a real steal in Dalton, the 6-foot-3, 195 pound receiver out of Madison-Ridgeland Academy.
He chose USM over Jackson State, Memphis and others. Not a single SEC school offered a scholarship. Ole Miss and Mississippi State contacted him in 2020, said they’d keep an eye on him but never seriously pursued him.
The word was that SEC recruiters thought Dalton wasn’t fast enough.
“And he probably wasn’t last year,” says MRA coach Herbert Davis, who led the Patriots this season to their third consecutive Class 6A MAIS state championship. “But he worked his butt off to get faster and quicker. We have a good speed program here.”
The result: Dalton ran a 4.54 40-yard dash during the middle of this past season. Laser timed.
“I noticed that Davis was breaking away from people easier,” his coach says. “I really think Covid hurt him. 2020 wasn’t a normal recruiting year.
“What people don’t know is, this past summer we played in some of the best 7-on 7 competitions around. We went to Arkansas and played against state champions. We went to Hoover (Ala.) and they had the top teams from 13 different states there. Every corner Davis lined up against was going to Michigan or somewhere like it. And he wore them out. It wasn’t even close.
“Just look at the tape. He has the best ball skills I’ve ever seen. The dude made some unbelievable catches. If you get the ball near him, he’s going to catch it.”
Ask JSU coach Deion Sanders, who was offensive coordinator of star-filled Trinity Christian in 2020 and opened the season against MRA. Dalton caught 6 passes for 146 yards and 3 touchdowns that night. On two of the scores, he simply out jumped defenders. On the third — the game-winner with 7 seconds left — he caught Zach Bailey’s perfect back-shoulder throw just inside the pylon and just across the goal line, then toe-tapped the turf before falling out of bounds.
That was his first start. Sanders postgame called Dalton’s play “spectacular.” It’s no surprise Sanders offered him a scholarship.
Herbert Davis says Dalton has a high football IQ.
In the playoff victory this season over Jackson Academy, Dalton caught a 74-yard touchdown pass 37 seconds before halftime that even surprised his coach.
“I called a play for four wide receivers to run vertical routes, just hoping to get lucky,” Davis says. “But you know what Dalton did? He jogged a few steps at the snap, looked back at the quarterback, and then took off. He ran right by the defensive back. I didn’t tell him to do that. He just did it.”
And you want statistics? Dalton has plenty.t He finished the season with 89 catches for 1,586 yards — second-most in Mississippi — and 15 touchdowns. Understand, he didn’t play the whole game most weeks because MRA usually had a big lead. His play earned him the Priority One Bank Metro Jackson Football Player of the Year award.
Against Jackson Prep, Dalton and sophomore quarterback John White connected for 388 yards — a Mississippi receiving record and 17th-best nationally, according to MaxPreps.
Dalton and I are standing outside the fence at the north end of MRA’s football field on a crisp December morning.
He recalls attending kindergarten in the building just south of the field. On Friday mornings during the season, a few of the players — wearing their game jerseys — would greet the youngsters as they arrived.
“My mom told me I was always pumped about that,” he says. “And then being able to do that as a player was pretty cool.”
He didn’t start watching the games until his middle school years. Before that, he was behind the stands with his friends playing all sorts of games.
“Wall ball, football, Smear the Deer — that’s where everybody tackles whoever happens to have the ball,” he says, smiling. “It definitely toughened me up.”
He says playing for a school that you attend from kindergarten through senior year makes everything mean more.
“You’ve been with a lot of your teammates all those years. You really get to know them and even their parents.
And no matter how many passes he caught or touchdowns he scored, his teammates always knew how to keep him humble.
“Aw, they’d give me junk,” he says. “They’d say stuff like, ‘Oh, you score touchdowns. You’re so cooooooool.’ Just a bunch of sarcasm. But I’d give it right back to them.”
He can’t easily explain the crazy, acrobatic catches he seemed to make every week.
A 31-inch vertical jump helps, of course.
“(Receivers) Coach (John) Weaver always told me I was able to track the ball really well when it’s in the air. That’s part of it, I guess.
“Getting your body in the right position, no matter how good the coverage is helps, too. And I have that mentality that when the ball is in the air, it’s mine. I just figure there is always a way to make the catch, no matter how good the coverage is or where the ball is.”
He doesn’t seem bothered that SEC schools ignored him.
“I’m perfectly fine with Southern Miss,” he says. “I liked all the coaches down there. You could just feel the energy and tell that things are going to be different under Coach Hall.”
He has checked USM’s future schedules.
In 2024, the Golden Eagles open the season at Ohio State in the famous Horseshoe, which seats 102,780. “Might be a little pressure there,” he says, laughing.
“We also play Miami, Florida State. And we play Mississippi State twice, my sophomore and senior seasons.”
USM coaches have told him he will play ‘X’ receiver. “That means I’ll usually be on the boundary side, and that gets a lot of one-on-one coverage. I like that,” Dalton says.
Now, he’s playing basketball and seeking the school’s 14th Overall title under legendary coach Richard Duease.
Dalton is not the best player. That title goes to highly-touted Josh Hubbard.
“I have fun just being a role player,” Dalton says.
Yes, a role player who scored at the buzzer last year to tie the Overall final and send it to overtime. MRA defeated Greenville Christian, 77-72.
“He’s not a big talker,” Davis says. “But you can always count on him to lead by his actions and to make plays.
“I think Southern got themselves a real player.”