BOONE — Akeem Davis-Gaither is fully aware of what is expected of an Appalachian State linebacker.
He was an understudy for Keenan Gilchrist, the former hard-hitting outside linebacker at App State. It was Gilchrist who delivered a memorable hit to Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs in the overtime period the Mountaineers played at Neyland Stadium in a 2016 game with the Vols. Dobbs was about to cross the goal line when Gilchrist crushed him, causing a fumble.
Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd recovered the fumble in the end zone and the Vols escaped with a 20-13 2016 win, while Dobbs managed to escape with both halves of his body connected to each other.
Davis-Gaither would like to be the guy who delivers a blistering hit against a big opponent that causes a fumble. Davis-Gaither, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound Thomasville native, is on his way to being that guy.
But Davis-Gaither doesn’t want to get that hit for his own ego.
“It feels good for yourself, but I think it feels better for the players around you,” Davis-Gaither said. “Now, we’ll see where we’re going and who the competition is and who’s going to do it next? Who’s going to follow that lead?”
Davis-Gaither made plenty of hits for the Mountaineers in 2018. He forced two fumbles in 2018 and finished with 105 tackles. The outside linebacker has caught the attention of observers of defensive players by being named to the Butkus Award list, which is given to the top linebacker by the Touchdown Athletic Club of Atlanta.
Davis-Gaither is also on the Chuck Bednarik Award watch list, which is given by the Maxwell Football Club to the top college defensive player of the season. Davis-Gaither is appreciative of the recognition, but has other goals that come first.
“I really don’t get into all of the preseason stuff,” he said. “I enjoy the moments and then I try to focus on the season and winning games and getting better. I appreciate all the nominations.”
Besides delivering hits that can potentially cause a fumble, Davis-Gaither resembles Gilchrist, and many App State linebackers before him, in other ways. Davis-Gaither is another in a long line of quick linebackers who may not be the prototype 6-foot-4, 240-pounds frame, but has cat-like quickness that overcomes any lack of size.
He combines this athleticism with the work he does in the film room, which help him recognize formations and plays that helps get him to the ball an extra step faster.
“The standard has always been high here since I’ve been here,” Davis-Gaither said. “We have to just keep doing what we’re doing and hopefully it will raise everybody else to another level.”
It’s a level that new linebackers and defensive coordinator Ted Roof feels Davis-Gaither is capable of reaching.
“Akeem has extreme athleticism and is very instinctive,” Roof said. “He’s a guy who can make a lot of plays.”
Appalachian State used a combination of power, speed and brains to humble a high-powered Toledo offense 34-0 in the 2017 Dollar General Bowl.
Davis-Gaither said Toledo talked some trash before the game, but App State used that to its advantage.
“They talked down to us and that we weren’t any good,” he said. “They were saying that they were too good to be playing us again, so we had a chip on our shoulder for that game.”
Davis-Gaither said the Mountaineers played better in other games — App State’s 45-13 win over Middle Tennessee in the 2018 New Orleans Bowl, for example.
The Mountaineers are preparing for their upcoming game on Aug. 31 at home against another Tennessee team — East Tennessee State. Davis-Gaither is aware that the Mountaineers play at North Carolina in the third week of the season, but cautions against looking past East Tennessee State and Charlotte, which invades Kidd Brewer Stadium Sept. 7.
He’s excited to take on the Tar Heels, but knows reaching the Mountaineers’ goal of an unbeaten season ends with a loss against East Tennessee State or Charlotte.
“No matter what the media says about the third game, we’ve still got to play the first game,” Davis-Gaither said. “There’s no 14-0 or whatever our goals are as a team. We have to win the first game and focus on the next game. To me, it’s easy to shut out the rest of the season and focus one game at a time.”