By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. -- There was a play early in the third quarter of the Auburn-Clemson game earlier this season where Carlton Davis went up with Deon Cain and knocked the ball away. He was in great position, located the ball and swatted it away. Fans booed, hoping for a pass interference call, but it was just a great play by Auburn's junior cornerback.
However, nobody remembers that play. They remember the play right before that when Clemson wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud caught a 50-50 ball over Davis, who was late getting turned around, and it went for 33 yards.
Such is the life of a lockdown cornerback in college football.
"You just have to be a dog out there," Davis said. "You have to be able to compete every play, all the time and not take plays off. It's a consistent job where you have to constantly be on your `A' game. That takes a different mentality.
"It's not like any other position because you're kind of on your own out there on that island. It can make or break you. One play can make you look bad, and one play can make you look good. So the consistency in that position is something that not many players have, and when you find that trait in a player, it's rare. It's something that you don't see every day."
Davis has that trait. Sure, he's going to give up some catches like he did in that Clemson game. But he competes every play. He's rarely, if ever, out of position. And after an injury-riddled sophomore season, he's bounced back to become one of the top cornerbacks in the country this season.
"He brings that feisty edge to us," Auburn safety Tray Matthews said. "He's one of those elite lockdown corners, so we put him on the best receiver."
Growing up, Davis earned the nickname `Low-key Carlton' from his older brother because of his calm, quiet demeanor. It didn't matter if he was playing football, running track or just hanging out with his friends, he rarely opened up or showed any kind of emotion.
"He was always talented, but he wasn't a spotlight kid and he wasn't one of the loud kids that showed a lot of emotion ever," Davis' mom Sonia Mannings said. "We had to bring that out of him because we're from Miami where it's a lot of showboating on the field, and they'll kind of pass you by if you don't do that. But he's never done it.
"Sometimes they didn't think he was tough enough to play the game because he didn't do a lot of loud talking. We would have to push him in the front, so his talent could be seen."
Davis was content letting his play do the talking. And that worked. In high school, he became one of the more coveted cornerbacks in the South Florida area. As a true freshman at Auburn, he earned one of the starting cornerback jobs after just three games. He finished that 2015 season with 56 tackles, eight passes broken up and three interceptions, and he was Auburn's first SEC all-freshman defensive back since Daren Bates in 2009.
The sky was the limit for Davis heading into his sophomore season, but he wasn't the same player in 2016. He wasn't the lockdown cornerback we saw flashes of the year before and the one he's turned into this year. And he'll be the first to admit that.
"Last year there was a series of injuries that kind of took me out of the game mentally and physically, and it took a toll on me," Davis said. "It's a part of football. It's a part of life. In life, you have ups and downs and obstacles, and it's just always how you respond. Twenty percent is about the things that happen to you, and 80 percent is about how you respond.
"That was the biggest thing for me coming into this year is responding and being who I really am and not leaving that kind of image to the fans of Auburn, my coaches and my teammates, my family and people who just watch football. I'm just trying to go back to the Carlton you guys met my freshman year."
The biggest difference between this season and last season? It begins with the work Davis put in during the offseason. There was a never a day off. He spent every day lifting, running, stretching with bands -- he even did some yoga -- all to help prepare his body for the rigors of a college football season. It's also helped him better push through injuries mentally.
"People don't know that because he's supposed to be on vacation even if he's coming for a weekend of summer break," Mannings said. "But I've never seen him come home and just relax and say I'm not doing anything. He always works out."
Davis has started all nine of Auburn's games this season.
So what does it take to be a lockdown cornerback? Confidence? Davis has plenty of that. Discipline? Check. Some might say swagger, and "Low-key Carlton" has even started to show a little more of that this season. It was evident this past Saturday when his mother caught him dancing after making a play against Texas A&M.
"I saw him dancing and I was shocked," Mannings said. "I took my phone out to record it. I couldn't believe it."
But the No. 1 trait? Consistency.
"It's the hardest and the biggest," Davis said. "People forget easily, and you have to, too, at cornerback. You have to have a short memory because if you make a play one play and the next play he catches the ball, nobody remembers what you did before. They just remember him catching the ball. So you have to forget the good things, forget the bad things and just continue to prove yourself every down, every down. Just be consistent at trying to be the best."
The Clemson game was a perfect example. Davis gave up more than one pass on what were 50-50 balls. But he never got down, never stopped competing. And now, two months later, he's tied for the SEC lead with 10 pass break-ups. He'd probably have more, but the league's quarterbacks have simply stopped throwing his way.
However, as good and as consistent as Davis has been this season, there are still games remaining against No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama. Everything else that's happened up to this point? It doesn't matter. This Auburn team will be remembered for how it finishes the season.
That's a challenge Davis is ready to embrace head on.
"I'm just ready to give it all, leave it all on the table," he said. "These last three games will determine the fate of our season, so I'm just ready to give it all."
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: