At this time last year, defensive tackle Carlos Davis was doing his best to prepare for life in the NFL in the midst of a pandemic.
He went through the NFL's first-ever virtual draft, selected by the Steelers in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of Nebraska.
He had no idea of what would lie ahead, no idea that once the draft came and went, that life, and football, would still be virtual for months to come.
But like all of us, he adapted.
He just didn't do it alone.
Like all NFL rookies, and even veterans, Davis was thrown into a world of virtual learning right after the draft in 2020. There was no rookie minicamp, no OTAs, no overall minicamp, unlike this year.
It was just learning via a laptop or iPad on Zoom or whatever method and working out on his own. Well, maybe not fully on his own.
For those that know anything about Davis, the immediate thought would be it was his twin brother, Kahlil Davis, who was the one who he worked with, who helped him run the plays that were being sent his way by Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. But that wasn't the case.
Kahlil Davis was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the two brothers knew they had to find someone different when it came to helping them with drills, the playbook, etc., as sharing the information wouldn't be the way to go at this level.
So, he his recruited his girlfriend, Jade Pascale, to be that helping hand. Pascale is a former college volleyball player who didn't mind being the helping hand.
"I got a little help because if you get drafted, your coach can speak to you personally over the phone," said Davis. "I was able to talk to Coach Dunbar. We would go over the playbook, go over the install. I would go to the park and have my girlfriend help me run through the plays. She was familiar with the playbook. She doesn't understand it like I do, but she knows the calls. She would record my videos that we would send to Coach Dunbar. He would ask who was in the background, is that your coach. I told him yes, she was until I get with you.
"I told her to not be sensitive. If she sees something wrong, call me out. Even if we are running plays and I couldn't get out quick enough, she would let me know. That was huge. My brother and I used to do everything together. To have my girlfriend do it as I prepared for the biggest stage, I trusted her, and it went well. It was new and I liked it. I wasn't afraid to have my girlfriend help me."
Davis attacked last offseason, never easing up as he knew the challenge that was ahead of him.
"I was doing a lot of drill work," said Davis. "Coach Dunbar would have us send videos and stuff to him. I just took it really seriously. I knew how to train myself, so that part was easy for me. I knew what it took to get into shape and be in the best possible shape for me. When I got there finally for camp, I was 310, and then I got down to 290 pretty quick and stayed there the whole season."
Dropping those 20 pounds was something that Davis really focused on when he arrived in Pittsburgh, and a big reason for his success was the diet he was following.
"I was eating a lot better," said Davis. "A lot of clean food. Vegetables, seafood. It started to shred off. I will eat anything if it helps me, even if I don't like it, so it wasn't hard for me."
Losing weight wasn't going to be the main factor for him making the 53-man roster, though. He knew he had to do a lot more to show he was worthy, especially without a preseason to be able to put something on tape.
"I knew it was going to be different. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I put down my head, worked hard and didn't say too much," said Davis. "I was staying after practice every day, being the last one in the weight room. Doing anything extra I could to show that I wanted it.
"I know how rough it is. I have had guys go before me in that process. In that short time, I really just was like a robot. Go to work, go home, study the playbook, go to sleep at 8 p.m. I stuck to that schedule. I got as much sleep as I could. I ate well. I was on a repeat cycle. I think the coaches saw that. They saw my ability to run. Coach (Mike) Tomlin was impressed I lost some of that weight. I felt better after I lost some of that weight. I was basically a machine, all the way through camp."
Discipline was the key for him, never letting go of the dream.
"You learn a recipe," said Davis. "What works for you, what doesn't work for you. I have been doing it for so long. I know what works for me, so I stick to that. I add in stuff I like. Coach Dunbar sent us drills to do. I did the stuff I liked and the stuff I didn't like because I knew it was going to make me better."
There were no guarantees, though, and he knew it. So, on the day of the cuts to the 53-man roster, Davis was understandably nervous.
"That and draft day were the most stressful days of my life," said Davis. "My brother called me and told me he made the team. He said if they don't call you, you made the team. It was at four and I knew the cuts would be done. My girlfriend and I sat on the couch, played Madden to take my mind off of it, and when I didn't get a call, I called my brother. But first I saw on the Steelers website. They put out the final roster, and I was on there and I couldn't believe it.
"I knew that I did enough to make the team, but the experience wasn't there so I wasn't sure. Just to see your hard work pay off gave me motivation to keep going."
Early in the season Davis, like many rookies, had to bide his time, inactive for the first seven games. He made his NFL debut against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9, recording two solo tackles.
"That week was so stressful," said Davis of the time leading up to the game. "I was barely eating because it was my first shot. I knew it could go good, or it could go bad. I found out I was playing, how many plays, so I was in the playbook non-stop. I knew the guy I was going against, I played him in college, and then when we get to the game he wasn't in there. Then my nerves went away. I was having fun. At one point I looked and T.J. (Watt), Bud (Dupree), (Stephon) Tuitt and Cam (Heyward) were by me. I couldn't believe it. It was surreal. It was very surreal."
The following week he had a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10 and added two tackles against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16. He finished out the year with a tackle against the Cleveland Browns in Week 17.
The numbers might not have been eye-popping, with six tackles in seven games, but gaining experience was a key for him.
"I would say once they find out you can play, you understand the playbook, you just build on it," said Davis. "That is my main focus. On the defensive line you have to know multiple positions. Instead of just knowing nose, I am focusing on end and wherever they want me to play. I am going to try and learn the whole front and know where everybody else is supposed to be."
Right now Davis is doing some of the things he did last year, and then some. He is focusing on his conditioning, picking up on the things he learned in 2020 to be better prepared for training camp and the 2021 season.
"The game is a lot faster," said Davis. "When I think, I play slow. So really just fine tuning the playbook and being in the best shape I can be. Plus, pass rush and run blocking, just learning blocks. I am going to do that with my college coach this offseason. We run the same blocks where I went to school as in the pros. I am going to learn more blocks and how to play them.
"Like Coach Tomlin told me before I left at the end of last season, we expect you to be better than you were last year. That is what I took as far as the experience. I have one year under my belt. I am going to use that. Stuff I didn't do well last year, I know what to work on to please my coaches and everyone around me. I know what to do better. I feel like the experience is going to make me better."