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Film Study: Corey Davis, Western Michigan’s explosive wide receiver

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Defending Corey Davis is vital for Northwestern, but also very difficult.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Toledo Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Davis was only a 2-star recruit coming out of high school, but as he enters his senior season with the Western Michigan Broncos — Northwestern’s Week 1 opponent — he might be the best wide receiver in college football. You’ve probably never heard of him.

Although he went to Wheaton Warrenville South High School, the same Chicago-area school as Dan and Tommy Vitale, Davis didn’t receive any interest from Northwestern or many other programs for that matter. Since arriving in Kalamazoo in 2013, all Davis has done is produce, amassing over 3,700 yards and 33 touchdowns in his three seasons. His coach, P.J. Fleck, calls Davis the “complete package” and many prognosticators think he’s a potential first day NFL Draft prospect.

What makes Davis so special outside of his jaw-dropping statistics? It’s his mixture of size — Davis boasts a 6-2, 215-pound frame — and speed, which allows him to be both a consistent possession receiver for the Broncos as well as a reliable deep threat. Last year, alongside 7th-round pick Daniel Braverman, Davis was able to light up opposing defenses for the Broncos. According to S&P+, Davis effort were good enough to get Western Michigan to 22nd in the country in passing offense S&P+.

Northwestern’s weakened secondary — now relying heavily on top corners Matthew Harris and Montre Hartage after the graduation of Nick VanHoose and injury to Keith Watkins III — will have its hands full with Davis, even though it won’t have to deal with Braverman.

Western Michigan went 8-5 in 2015, mostly beating up on a relatively weak MAC schedule. But the Broncos did play two Big Ten teams, Ohio State and Michigan State, which happened to be the conference’s best last season. In those games, which Western Michigan lost by a combined 29 points, Davis caught 16 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown.

Most importantly, though, he showed he can terrorize Big Ten cornerbacks just like how he dominates his own conference. Take this play, which went for a 44-yard gain against Michigan State.

Davis goes right over No. 39 Jermaine Edmondson, who, coincidentally, isn’t with the Spartans anymore, to catch that pass from quarterback Zach Terrell. Even a little contact from Edmondson and a slightly under-thrown pass can’t stop Davis from adjusting in the air to make the play. His size is enough to cause problems for defenses but it’s his athleticism that allows him to recover mid-air to really stretch Western Michigan’s offensive capabilities.

Later in the same drive, Davis shows his versatility in P.J. Fleck’s offense. Due to his ability to get downfield with ease, all he has to do is a make a quick move a couple yards past the line of scrimmage to get some separation. Then, Terrell hits him on an in-route and Davis immediately breaks a tackle to get inside the Michigan State 5-yard line.

Before the defense can bring him down, it’s a 20-yard gain on a short pass that’s virtually impossible to prevent.

Davis put up some cartoonish numbers in his junior season, garnering over 100 receiving yards in nine of 13 games. In four of those such efforts, he eclipsed the 150-yard mark.

One of those stellar performances came in the Bahamas Bowl, which Western Michigan won 45-31 over Middle Tennessee. Some of the plays Davis made in that game — against a decent Blue Raiders team — were jaw-dropping.

He’s pushed by the cornerback, is falling down and still is able to make a ridiculous one-handed grab of a pass thrown by Tom Flacco, Joe’s less elite brother. Usually, it’s the more possession-type receivers that are able to make those catches, but Davis, who blends both types of wide receiver, is able to hold on. It’s rare for a mid-major college pass-catcher to be able to both blow by defenders and make circus catches over them.

In this play, Davis take a simple curl route and, after a simple spin move, propels himself to an 80-yard touchdown while sending a Middle Tennessee cornerback flying in the other direction. Sure, he breaks multiple tackles as he heads down the sideline but it’s that spectacular initial move which helps him break through the first layer of the defense.

Another example of Davis burning the defender on a deep route and, successfully, circling back to catch an under-throw. You can’t press up on Davis too much, or he can beat you over the top. However, if you give him any cushion, he has the ability to use that extra space to make one, or multiple, men miss for a potentially big play.

The lack of another top talent at wideout for Western Michigan — the No. 2 receiver is senior Michael Henry, who just caught 18 passes last season — means that Northwestern can double Davis if need be. But even that might not even be enough to stop him. He might be the biggest issue for the Wildcats to deal with, and that’s because he can make plays in so many different ways.