Unheralded seniors contributing to playoff run for Johns Hopkins football

It wasn’t that long ago when Anthony Davidson, a starting defensive tackle for the Johns Hopkins football team, was buried on the depth chart. The realization that he had gone from being a two-way starter for a South Fayette High School team in western Pennsylvania that went 32-0 and captured back-to-back state championships in his final two seasons to a reserve in Baltimore was a somber reminder that Davidson was in a different league.

“For me, it was something that kind of humbled me a bit and grounded me as a player,” he recalled. “You go from being a senior at the top of the food chain to a freshman in a matter of months, and it kind of helps you remember that the grind and the work is just beginning and you have a long four years ahead of you if you want to ultimately get to a role as a senior and a major contributor to the program.”

Davidson is one of several Blue Jays seniors who have toiled in relative anonymity early in their college careers but are now reaping the benefits of their persistence. And when Johns Hopkins (11-1) welcomes RPI (10-1) to Homewood Field in Baltimore on Saturday at 12 p.m. for an NCAA Division III tournament quarterfinal, those players figure to be involved in determining the outcome.

The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Davidson ranks second on the defense in sacks (4½) and tackles for loss (10½) and third in total tackles (56). Six-foot, 195-pound running back Tyler Messinger ranks second on offense in rushing yards (605) and touchdown runs (eight), is tied for third in touchdown catches (four), and ranks fifth in receiving yards (301).

Wide receivers Austin Hartman (6-4, 200) and Kyle Morris (6-4, 215) are tied for eighth in receiving yards (183). Morris leads the team in yards per catch (22.9), while Hartman ranks fourth (20.3).

“We have a great senior class, and there are definitely a few guys that as freshmen were playing,” Messinger said. “It was a great opportunity for them, but we knew that — and this happens with every class — there are guys who have been waiting. Coach plays the best players, and we just hope that everyone will get their chance at some point. So seeing everyone have a chance to impact the team, it’s just great to see.”

The seniors personify a saying that coach Jim Margraff has coined about “investing your time and not just spending your time” at practice for two hours per day during the season. Margraff, who estimated that he has been voicing that phrase for the past 20 years, said it is geared toward motivating players who are not starting or getting the playing time they may have expected.

“I think that’s a very simple statement. You can be out there for two hours, and some guys are spending it, and some guys are investing in it,” he said. “… You need to develop players. It’s a matter of staying focused and coming out every day and trying to get a little bit better. I think guys understand that.”

The players joked that Margraff has several homespun stories and truisms that he cycles through. But they agreed that there’s a certain truth to his maxim about caring about their effort in practice.

“It’s really good advice on the football field, but it also helped me in the university,” Hartman said. “Our group is really ambitious in general, and to be successful at a prestigious and rigorous university, we really have to make the most of our time on and off the field, and I think that’s really what he’s saying — ‘Don’t look forward to the end of it. You’ve got to enjoy your time while you’re there and really put in the work, not just passing the time.’ Our practices reflect that with their efficiency. We do everything with intensity and intention, and it’s something that he doesn’t just preach to us. He practices it with how he sets up our practices and how he pushes the game plan onto us.”

The seniors said they clung to Margraff’s words earlier in their careers when they became aware there were older and better players ahead of them for playing time.

“It definitely was frustrating,” Messinger said. “I definitely had a couple meetings with Coach, talking about how to get better and what I could do to improve and what I was not doing. I just kind of tried to keep working and do my best.”

Age doesn’t necessarily equate into playing time. Hartman and Morris have rotated from scout team duties one week to the game day roster the next, and Margraff said he has been thoroughly impressed by the way they have conducted themselves.

“It’s tough sometimes to not really know what’s going to happen going into a week, but that’s where investing your time really comes into it,” Morris said. “Whether it’s just scout team reps this week or I’m starting in a game, it’s about being prepared to play as quickly as possible because that’s how I practice every day and that’s how I approach meetings.”

Davidson and Messinger have made a significant impact in their final year of eligibility. Davidson earned first-team All-Centennial Conference honors, while Messinger carried the ball 16 times for a career-high 231 yards and a school record-tying four touchdowns in last week’s 58-27 rout at Frostburg State in the NCAA tournament second round.

The individual accolades are nice, but Margraff said the most rewarding aspect is witnessing the players’ development.

“I think the greatest thrill for a coach is when someone can do something one week that he couldn’t do the week before, and I think you find that in all players, not just the guys who make it to the field,” he said. “There are a lot of guys who improve but maybe never make it to the field or a starting position, but they’ve gotten better, they’re worked hard for their teammates, and they’re an integral part of the team — whether they’re first team or third team.”

The Blue Jays are making only their second appearance in the quarterfinal round and first since the 2009 squad was shut out by Wesley, 12-0. Getting past RPI for what would be the school’s first semifinal berth is the top priority, Davidson said.

“We have an opportunity to do something Saturday that has never been done in our program’s history,” he said. “That for me is at the forefront of importance. We can become a team that makes it to the Final Four, and we can leave our mark as one of the best football teams that has ever played for Hopkins.”

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