Davis brings blue-collar approach to baseball diamond
HOUSTON -- Forget about Pilates, squats or military presses. Tennessee freshman center fielder Kentrail Davis found a way to build rippling muscles without spending too much time in a gymnasium.
While growing up in Theodore, Ala., Davis often labored for his father, Kenney, who works in the construction business. The grueling work lifting and pouring concrete slabs in his family's business helped transform him from a speedy spray-hitting leadoff hitter to one with significant home-run power.
"If you've ever done anything like that, you'll see what it does for you," Davis said. "Picking up tons of concrete, pulling it around on the site and then holding buckets of water -- it was pretty much like a workout all day long."
As his baseball skills have developed, Davis hasn't been called in to the family business quite as often. And because of his earlier experiences, he considers a chance to work out in a gymnasium or a batting cage almost like a picnic compared to a long, hard day working with his dad.
"I don't do it anymore," Davis said. "It's a tough job, and you really earn your money. It's not something I want to do, but it's certainly good, hard work."
Not that his work ethic has slacked since he began concentrating on baseball. Davis has developed into one of the top freshmen in college baseball. Baseball America ranked him as the third-best freshman prospect in the country this year, behind North Carolina pitcher Matt Harvey and San Diego pitcher Kyle Blair.
Davis is a dynamic, 5-foot-9, 198-pound hitter who shows remarkable power for someone of his stature. His Popeye-like forearms, barrel chest and wide hips have led some scouts to consider him a left-handed-hitting image of former Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame center fielder Kirby Puckett.
"I hear that comparison all the time," Davis said. "It's very flattering to me. If somebody wants to compare me to a Hall of Famer like that, I take it as a big compliment."
Teammates haven't been surprised by his power display in his short time with Tennessee.
"You look at him after he takes off his uniform," Tennessee catcher Yan Gomes said. "The kid is built. After looking at him, I wish my dad was in the construction business and I could have done some of those things. It would have helped me."
Davis has provided a pivotal spark for the Volunteers so far this season, leading the team's regulars with a .438 batting average. He helped spark a three-game sweep over Eastern Michigan last weekend, collecting three hits in two of the games, including his first college home run on Saturday. He was named the SEC's Freshman of the Week for his performance.
First-year Tennessee coach Todd Raleigh wasn't sure that Davis would even attend college after he was ranked among the top 50 prospects in high school last year and was projected to be a first-round pick in some mock drafts.
But Davis' association with baseball agent Scott Boras before the draft didn't help his draft prospects. Boras, who has a reputation for difficult and contentious signings with major league teams, made it well known that Davis expected a big contract to turn pro.
That factor, along with a back injury and whiplash that he suffered early in his senior season in high school, helped push him to the 14th round of the draft, where the Colorado Rockies selected him. Davis instead decided to join Raleigh's fledgling program.
"I'm actually glad that I came to school now," Davis said. "I feel as a person, I've matured a lot more from spending a year in college. And I'm just having fun with the guys out there playing."
That spirit is a huge contrast to what would have been in store for him if he was now riding the buses in the low minor leagues.
"I'm just having fun out there playing with the guys," Davis said. "If I had gone pro, it would have been more like a job. I was a little disappointed initially because it's every kid's dream to play pro baseball. But after a while, I'm here and I'm happy with my decision."
Pro scouts still love his live bat and his ability to drive the ball with power to all fields. He's projected as a potential 30-homer, 30-stolen base producer with continued growth and maturity.
A torn hamstring and a torn ligament in his left thumb have set back his development this season. Despite the injuries, he has gamely stayed in the lineup to help spark the Volunteers' 7-4 start.
"I've been trying to battle through it all season long," Davis said. "My hand started bothering me, and then my hamstring. I've just been trying to gut it out and stay in the lineup."
Davis' health will be a huge factor as Raleigh attempts to bring the Volunteers back to their first trip to the NCAA playoffs since making the College World Series in 2005.
Despite being picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference's East Division before the season, the Volunteers are developing a hard-nosed attitude after Raleigh's arrival. And that's not surprising, considering he earlier cited the program's lack of toughness and passion when using the term "wine and cheese" to describe his perception of Tennessee's recent squads.
"He makes us get after it a lot more," Davis said. "Coach tells us everybody is looking down at us. We're using that as motivation as a team to pump us up and prove something to a lot of people."
And it's clear that Davis is one of those players the new coach hopes to build his program around.
"He's got a couple of injuries and he's out here trying to play through it," Raleigh said. "Kentrail is a tough kid and a good player. He really gets after it."
Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at email@example.com.