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Former Lakewood standout Ryan Davis embracing the Vipers’ XFL opportunity

Tampa Bay vs. New York | In high school and at Auburn, Davis has always put up numbers. On Sunday, his chance could come on special teams in a new league that’s bringing back the return game.

PLANT CITY — Ryan Davis rewrote Pinellas County passing records in high school and became a record-setting receiver in college. Yet, the former Lakewood High standout is still looking for the opportunity to show he can play at the professional level.

He has a chance close to home with the Tampa Bay Vipers of the XFL, which begins its reboot this weekend. The Vipers play their regular-season opener at 2 p.m. Sunday against the New York Guardians at MetLife Stadium. The game will be broadcast nationally on Fox.

The 22-year-old Davis has always had to prove himself. He’s 5-foot-10 playing a big man’s game. This time last season, he was preparing for the NFL combine, working to overcome questions about his route running.

With the Vipers, Davis is one of a handful of receivers battling for snaps Sunday. He will likely get the opportunity to utilize his speed and open-field ability as a kickoff and punt returner.

“He’s been in the kickoff return business. He’s part of our wide receiver corps,” Vipers head coach Marc Trestman said. “I think right now, Ryan is in a competition with four guys really to get playing time.”

But competition is nothing new for Davis.

Tampa Bay Vipers wide receiver Ryan Davis (18) runs through drills during practice at Plant City Stadium in Plant City, Florida on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Davis still holds the Pinellas County career passing yardage mark, having thrown for 6,760 yards. He played his junior and senior year at Lakewood after two seasons at Northeast. He left Auburn as the school’s all-time leader in receptions with 178.

Davis went undrafted last April and signed with the Patriots as a free agent. He caught three passes in the preseason and was among the team’s final roster cuts. He returned to the bay area and kept working out while he waited for his next opportunity, which came when the Vipers drafted him in October.

“You learn a lot going through the ups and downs and different courses and phases of your life and it taught me just to stay grounded and stay level headed, keep working and keep chopping because things change in a matter of seconds every day,” Davis said.

Ryan Davis left Lakewood High School at Pinellas County's all-time leading passer.

Players competing for the final receiver spots often have to prove themselves on special teams. NFL rule changes aimed at player safety have diminished the return game. In the XFL, however, special teams rules should allow for more big returns.

There’s a greater incentive to kick to return men due to rules that place the ball at the 35-yard line on kickoffs out of the end zone and punts that go out of bounds.

Other special teams rules — players line up five yards apart on kickoffs and can only move once the returner catches the ball or three seconds after it touches the ground for the first time — intend to prevent high-impact collisions.

“It’s going to give guys — not just me but around this whole league — the opportunity to showcase their skills," Davis said. "I think there’s an excitement for the fans as well with the return game. I know in the NFL a lot of guys try to kick away, but in this league, they’re preventing (teams) from kicking away. So I’m excited for it.”

Auburn punt returner Ryan Davis (23) looks upfield against Texas A&M during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Todd Kirkland)

Ultimately, like many other XFL players, Davis hopes he gets another opportunity at the NFL.

"I definitely believe in my ability," Davis said. "I think I've shown a lot. I definitely feel like I belong. I think it's all on me and how I take advantage of the opportunity. Just put pressure on everyone to be the pick of the litter. That's my goal."

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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Five Vipers players to watch

RB De’Veon Smith: While former USF quarterback Quinton Flowers should see considerable time at running back, Smith will likely be the team’s primary ball carrier. A former Michigan standout, the 5-foot-11, 233-pound Smith is a strong runner who averaged 4.6 yards a carry playing for the Orlando Apollos of the American Alliance of Football.

WR Jalen Tolliver: One thing you might notice right away from the Vipers receiving corps is that they’re big: Seantavius Jones is 6-foot-5, Tanner McEvoy is 6-foot-6, Reece Horn is 6-foot-3. Tolliver is just 6-foot-2, but he plays bigger. Think of a Chris Godwin-type receiver, a player with good hands with the ability to extend plays after the catch.

C Jordan McCray: Speaking of size, the Vipers offensive line has it. Whether they’re strong enough to push defenses off the line remains to be seen, but they certainly have the potential. It begins in the middle with McCray, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound center who played collegiately at Central Florida and has been in four NFL camps.

LB Lucas Wacha: Heading into training camp, the 26-year-old inside linebacker was expected to emerge at one of the team’s leaders on defense. And that’s come true. In Tampa, he’s shown to be a hard-nosed player with a nose for the ball. Wacha is the younger brother of Mets pitcher Michael Wacha.

CB Rannell Hall: Hall was drafted as a receiver and has played the position his entire pro career, including a stint on the Bucs practice squad in 2015. The Vipers converted him to a cornerback. Defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville (the former Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons head coach) said the transition moved slowly at first but has made huge strides since training camp. His tackling is an unknown going into the opener.

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