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MOBILE — Marlon Davidson looked the part Tuesday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. He wore the alternate helmet Auburn donned for the Outback Bowl to honor program legend Pat Sullivan. He even had Sullivan’s No. 7 on his Senior Bowl practice jersey for good measure.

But one of the reps he took during position drills near the start of the South Team’s practice with the Cincinnati Bengals’ coaching staff wasn’t quite his best, and he heard about it. That’s something he had talked about earlier in the day — “Every rep you take has got to be a great rep, because you’re playing against great talent,” he said.

The next rep was great. Most of the ones he took Tuesday were.

Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus tweeted that Davidson “looked fantastic in one-on-one drills to start practice” and “kicked inside and won a handful of reps against guards.” Jonah Tuls of The Draft Network and John Schmeelk, a reporter for the New York Giants team website, called Davidson the “best player” on the field.

Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller said no player impressed him more than Davidson, who has generated “legitimate Round 1 buzz” over the past two weeks.

That’s the type of ability Davidson came to Mobile to showcase.

“I’ve just got to kick the door down and go on and walk through it,” Davidson said. “Just show people that, man, I’m here. I’m going to be that person you want for your organization.”

Davidson is trying to keep a series of promises he made to his mom when he was in the seventh grade. He told her he would do everything right. He told her he would finish school. He told her that she would never have to stress again — not about money, not about work, not about anything. “She would have everything taken care of,” he said. She would live in a house right beside him.

Cynthia Carter died unexpectedly on Feb. 23, 2015, at 47 years old. She had been dealing with pain in her leg that doctors believed was tendinitis, but a second examination when the pain didn’t subside revealed a blood clot. It reached her heart before the ambulance arrived to transport her to Baptist Medical Center East in Montgomery.

Davidson’s life went through a seismic change. The then-17-year-old junior at G.W. Carver High moved back to Greenville to live with his aunt and Carter’s sister, Debra Moorer. A year later, he was off to Auburn, where his older brother Kenneth Carter, a standout player for the Tigers from 2010-13, serves as a support staffer.

All of that played a role in leading Davidson to where he was Tuesday, at the start of the most important three-month job interview of his life.

He came “very close” to leaving Auburn after his junior season. One of the reasons he decided to stay was to play one more year on the defensive line alongside Derrick Brown and finish what they started when they signed as highly rated recruits in 2016. But another, he said, was money. He was very frank about it at the time. “I’m all about dollars,” he said in February. “I’m trying to get paid.”

He would have. He said the NFL’s College Advisory Committee graded him as a late-second or third-round pick. Based on last year’s rookie wage scale, that would have been worth between $3.4 and $7.7 million over the life of a four-year contract, depending on where he got drafted.

First-round picks, though, start at more than $10 million. And Davidson has always dreamed about being a first-round pick. He came back, in part, to raise his draft stock.

Looking back on it now, he said “it was the best decision I ever made in my life.”

It took hard work, though. To improve his draft stock, Davidson believed he needed to do much better than the 3½ sacks he averaged during his sophomore and junior years. To get there, he believed he needed to make a commitment to his health — he was an iron man over the course of his career, starting 51 of 53 games, but he was not always 100 percent, often playing through nicks and bruises

So he changed his diet over the summer, trading regular trips to favorite spots Burger King and Zaxby’s for healthier options like salads and salmon. He placed a greater emphasis on conditioning, working every day with strength coach Ryan Russell.

The result was by far the best campaign of Davidson’s four-year career. He set career-highs with 48 tackles, 12½ tackles for loss, 7½ sacks and two forced fumbles. Brown was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year, but Davidson edged his roommate 4-3 in their season-long race to see who could win more SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“Marlon Davidson is one of the best football players, just all around, that I’ve had the chance to coach since I’ve been coaching college,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said after the South Team’s practice Tuesday. “He had a big-time year not just rushing the passer, but playing the run. He’s like a coach on the field. A chance to get out here and compete against these guys, just watching him today, he looks really good and really natural. I’m very excited about his future.”

Now, Davidson has to prove himself to NFL personnel. That’s a much more difficult task. On Monday, Senior Bowl participants were put through three-hour mental evaluations. Davidson said that was a tougher test than any offensive tackle he went up against during the 2019 season.

But on Tuesday, he was in his element. The schedule featured media interviews, practice and meetings with NFL teams. He excels at the first two, so the third should have been no problem.

“It’s a very, very exciting moment for me, coming down here to the Senior Bowl and being able to showcase my talents with the highest level of competition in the world,” Davidson said. “Just having fun, man. Just being here and enjoying the moment, talking to the NFL scouts and doing all types of things like that. Just being you and showing them the type of person you are.”

Davidson began the week ranked No. 7 among defensive ends in the 2020 draft class and projected to come off the board during Day 2 of the NFL draft, according to Walter Football. But it seems he took a strong first step toward improving that stock on Tuesday, just like he wanted. And he still has the NFL combine in February and Auburn’s on-campus pro day in March to make even more noise before names start getting called on April 23.

“I put myself in a position to where a lot of people want to be at in life, especially athletes from around the world. Everybody wants to be in the situation that I’m in,” Davidson said. “I played my butt off to get here. I continue to work hard, throughout this whole process, to show people I deserve it.”

That’s surely what his mom would have wanted.

This article originally ran on annistonstar.com.

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