P.J. Davis winning the most improved player award for the defense shouldn't be seen as a case of him improving from a less-than-stellar season in 2013. That's not the case at all. Davis performed extremely well as an under-recruited hybrid defensive player as a true freshman on the Flats, exceeding all expectations in his first year on campus. The reason for the honor is due to his incredible contributions to the defense as a first-year starter .
2013 was seen as a huge success for P.J. Davis. He avoided being redshirted and picked up 41 tackles as true freshman. He even started against Virginia Tech and picked up four tackles, including two tackles for loss. For a guy who was seen as too small to play anything other than cornerback on defense, Davis made his mark as a future playmaking linebacker on the Georgia Tech defense. After the 2013 season, Davis emerged as the potential starting linebacker for 2014 beside Quayshawn Nealy despite being a year or two behind linebackers like Marcus Allen, Beau Hankins, and Anthony Harrell.
Davis as a starting linebacker definitely didn't disappoint. He started 13 of 14 games for the Jackets and led the team in tackles with 119. He also added 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception, and one defensive touchdown. Those numbers were rewarded with two ACC linebacker of the week awards (Clemson, Virginia Tech) and an All-ACC, Honorable Mention.
During many times in the season, Davis seemed to be the lone guy on the defense that was always swarming to the ball during all situations. His aggressive play was a savior to a defense that couldn't seem to wrap up a ball carrier at certain times throughout the year. He showed his versatility to do anything needed at the linebacker position. He's a specialist at rushing the passer, his pursuit is impressive in the running game, and he's plenty athletic enough to drop back in coverage to defend a receiver. Davis only seemed to get better with time as he recorded 42 tackles in Tech's final four games against Clemson, Georgia, Florida State, and Mississippi State. Prime competition didn't seem to slow him down at all, and he seems like a guy always willing to step up to the challenge and make a big play.
The absence of Davis to the 2014 defense would've been detrimental to the team. In many ways, some could even consider him the most valuable piece to the defense. At many points, the Tech defense would've seemed as soft as we've seen in a really long time and nearly inept at being able to stop a ball carrier from getting to the second level. The fire and tenacity at linebacker is something Tech has been blessed with from guys like Julian Burnett, and P.J. Davis was able to cover that role immediately once gathering the starter's job.
In 2015, the linebacker core will be all Davis'. The departure of Nealy will leave Davis as the experienced linebacker at Tech. He'll look to assume that leadership role right away as one of the best LB's in the conference. I expect Davis to be a contender for All-ACC honors next season on a defense that should be much improved with a lot of experience coming back. Davis will likely be used to blitz even more with Nealy being gone, and five or more sacks is easily a possibility for the upcoming junior. I'll add a prediction that this time next year, I'll be announcing Davis as the most valuable player on the 2015 Georgia Tech defense.
Congratulations to P.J. Davis for an outstanding 2014 season, and here's to having the joy of watching two more seasons of his play on the Flats.