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It Takes A Village: Davante Adams' evolution through the eyes of three coaches who shaped him
The receiver's journey to becoming an All-Pro can be traced through the wide receivers coaches that molded him at Fresno State and early in his NFL career.
By Levi Edwards Apr 05, 2022

Once upon a time in East Palo Alto, California, Davante Adams was incidentally recruited to play at Fresno State University.

Incidentally, accidentally, fortunately – take your pick. The bottom line is Keith Williams, now the Baltimore Ravens pass game specialist, was not planning on recruiting Adams when he visited Palo Alto High School in the fall of 2010. He actually didn't even know Adams was on the team during his initial visit.

The former Fresno State receivers coach had come to Palo Alto High School in pursuit of another player he had his eyes on. It wasn't until he was tipped off by Palo Alto Vikings head coach Earl Hansen there was another receiver he should give a closer look.

"The kid you're coming to see is a good player," Williams recalls Hansen telling him. "But we have another kid, Davante Adams, he's a late bloomer in terms of football experience, but he's a heck of an athlete."

While Adams was a relatively unknown football prospect, he had made a name for himself as a two-sport star. Before he took his talents to the football field, he was a basketball junkie. He had played varsity guard for the basketball team since arriving on campus as a freshman, and he didn't consider playing football until he was an upperclassman.

With the limited timeframe, he had to make an impact in his new sport, and he didn't disappoint. Adams' senior season consisted of him starting at wide receiver and cornerback – finishing with 63 catches, 1,089 yards and 11 touchdowns – en route to an undefeated CIF Division I Championship season.

Despite the success, he was heavily recruited only by San Diego State and Fresno State. And even those two schools had difficulty obtaining Adams, with Williams being given some disappointing news from the school's registrars office.

"He had bad grades. He hadn't applied himself his first two years of high school," Williams said bluntly. "He was still bouncing back from the hole he put himself in. He hadn't qualified yet going into the final semester of his senior season, he still hadn't qualified yet academically. Even the schools that knew about him probably were a little hesitant because of where he was academically at that point."

"My junior and senior year in high school, I had to really dig deep, and I took like eight classes my last year while people were taking four and already knowing where they are going to the school," Adams recalled of his early struggles during his introductory press conference. "[Williams] was one of the ones that was there supporting my mom. She's crying like, 'I just really want my son to make it. He didn't apply himself. He's incredibly smart, but he was not applying himself his first two years in high school.'

"I love telling this story because it's good for people to hear, for the young people to hear, to know that it's never too late, especially if you have a great support system like what I do."

The poor grades weren't enough to scare away Williams, who wanted to see if there was more to Adams' situation.

"I went and found him and we talked," Williams said of meeting Adams. "From the energy, from the vibe, his body language, his presence, the way he was looking me in the eye, he was articulate. He wasn't shy, any of that stuff. I just had a hunch for this guy, that he just didn't apply himself. We've all been there. It's not how you start, it's how you finish. And I could tell right then, it wasn't anything wrong with him, he just needed to apply himself and get around the right people and get around the right leadership to catch him and push him.

"After I had that first conversation with him, I knew he was going to be OK."

Adams, after an eight years and counting career in the league, is still grateful that Williams gave him the benefit of the doubt – while many didn't during the self-described downward spiral he was going through.

"With recruiting, you move around and talk to a lot of kids," Adams told, "and you can talk to someone and tell if they're not very bright, if they're not very sharp as far as understanding how everything goes. So I think [Williams] was able to realize, 'This dude is actually legit smart, he's just not applying himself in the classroom.' That's the difference. It's time to see if I can really reach and get all of that out of him, and he does that better than anyone I think I've met.

"I'm forever indebted to him for doing that because who knows if I'd even be here right now," continued Adams. "I had to make a quick turnaround and it wasn't easy."

After Adams arrived to Fresno State, he redshirted his freshman year in order to become academically eligible to play for the team. While Adams wasn't on the field playing, he was still working behind the scenes to make things happen. Sharpening his work ethic, attending community college classes for credits and of course, building a chemistry with his teammates.

Keith Williams was adamant that the young man he went to bat for would not fail.

"It's not every day I was getting on him, but it's every day you're trying to guide him," said Williams. Every day in a positive way, in a critical way or in a challenging way – but it's every day you're guiding him. Whether it's direct, subtle, more than once in the same subject or topic doesn't matter. It's just every day."

That season, Williams helped set Adams up for the success that soon followed. Williams would never get the opportunity to coach his beloved prospect on the field at Bulldog Stadium. Before the start of Adams' redshirt freshman season, Williams left Fresno to become the receivers coach at Tulane.

Yet the wheels had already begun to turn for Adams.

"As far as meeting someone and being able to pull the best out of them and maximize themselves in a short amount of time – that's why he's a great coach," said Adams. "Because he's not going to let you be lazy. You might be lazy your whole life – he's not going to let you be that way.

"Fact is, I slacked off before I had to make up for a lot of lost ground, and made it happen."

"I got a lot more in the tank."

A year later, Adams went into his season exit meeting with Ron Antoine, the Bulldogs receivers coach after Williams. Antoine came to Fresno State with a solid track record as a player and young coach, having won two WAC championships as a receiver at Colorado State.

Adams may have thought the meeting would be a breeze. After turning things around with his grades, he won the starting wideout role over the team's previous leading receiver, who later transferred to Oklahoma. As a redshirt freshman, Adams led the Bulldogs in receiving yards, catches and touchdowns, and the team went 7-1 in conference play en route to their first conference championship in 13 seasons.

The 20-year-old had now established himself as the man of the team. But Antoine still saw a lot more room for improvement.

"We put together film of all his clips. One-on-ones, seven-on-seven team games of each route," said Antoine. "All the slants, all the posts, each route. And I sat down with him, and I said, 'I made this film. I want you to watch it because you think you may be pretty good now, but man you have a long way to go. You can be so much better than what you just did.'"

Having just recorded 102 catches and 14 touchdowns on the season, it took the receiver aback a little. He put the offense on his shoulders with Derek Carr. Yet his coach wanted even more out of him?

"He just caught 102 passes. He caught more passes that season than I did my whole career," continued Antoine. "He's looking at me like, 'I thought that was pretty good.' But he embraced it."

With an open mind, Adams watched the tape and realized his coach was right: He could take his game to a higher level.

It became personal for him.

"I certainly remember talking to him about that," said Adams. "And I had to come back to him and let him know I was fully aware. And I think that's when he started to know who I was more so as a player and letting him know I'm not done.

"I got a lot more in the tank."

Their meeting set the tempo for the upcoming season. Antoine had a bird's-eye view of the extraordinary amount of time and preparation Adams put into that offseason with Carr. Training like he was a walk-on trying to make the team, and not the team's established leading receiver.

"Any guy that handles himself like that in college, you know he's going to be a pro. Especially if he has the talent to be one," said Antoine. "He said, 'I see what you're saying, I got it. I'm going to work.' And he went to work with Derek."

Adams led the nation in receptions (131) and receiving touchdowns (24) in 2013. He was also second in the nation in receiving yards, eleven yards behind Fred Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks. Adams' quarterback Derek Carr led the nation in passing yards, completions and touchdowns and took home the Sammy Baugh Trophy.

The gaudy numbers the two produced together resulted in 11 victories, a bowl appearance and a 24-17 win over Utah State in the inaugural Mountain West Conference championship game. In that game, Adams had nine catches, 168 yards and a touchdown.

While much of the credit goes to what Carr and Adams were able to do together that season, Antoine's open challenge to Adams may deserve a bit of the credit for propelling him into overdrive.

"He definitely pushed me. He was a guy that was on me," Adams said of Antoine. "He reminded me of a lot of my old AAU coaches in the sense that he never boosted me up like the rest of the world did. He always tried to keep me even keel and humble, which obviously he didn't need to do, but he wanted to keep me humble to make sure I stayed hungry and keep pushing.

"That changed my life because it allowed me to keep my blinders on and keep focused and stay hungry. And we definitely took that next step that year."

In the two seasons Antoine was Adams' receivers coach, Adams had 233 catches, 3,031 receiving yards and 38 touchdown grabs. He declared for the NFL Draft after his redshirt sophomore season.

"He knew he wanted to not just be a good receiver, but a great receiver." Ron Antoine

Antoine, now the co-offensive coordinator at Lamar University, is still grateful he had the opportunity to coach Adams – and thankful for Adams' mentor Keith Williams helping bring him to Fresno in the first place.

"He's going to be a Hall of Fame receiver, which is amazing to say," said Antoine. "He still has a long way to go too because he was young when he came out. I told all the scouts that too, that this kid was just scratching the surface because you guys are getting him and he was so young. He definitely is the best player I've coached in my career and I was lucky enough to see him through his college career.

"I always want to talk about Keith Williams because he's the one that recruited him. He didn't get to see him through his college career, even though he was the one that recruited him and that happens to us coaches sometimes in the college ranks where you recruit a guy and you know he's going to be great and you can't see him through his career. So I want to thank Keith Williams for recruiting him and I was fortunate enough to coach him.

"Definitely the best guy I've coached. He knew what he wanted to do, which is paramount. He knew he wanted to not just be a good receiver, but a great receiver. He wanted to play in the NFL and he went to work."

“We all wore black. And that was the funeral for everybody that didn't pick me.”

Davante Adams was in his living room pissed off with his family, friends and an NFL film crew when he was taken with the 53rd pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.

"We had a full camera crew at the house, and I remember having all my people there just kind of chilling, waiting on the call on Day 1 because we kind of expected that," Adams said, speaking about his bittersweet draft day experience. "I mean, it was cocky a little bit, I guess you could say, but they wouldn't have just sent the cameras there if they didn't believe it too.

"But we were all kind of chilling at the house, and it was one of the weirdest/worst feelings I've had and most embarrassed feelings I've had, even though it was for the NFL Draft. At the end of the day, it's a great thing to look forward to either way but I didn't get picked, so everybody had to come back the next day.

"We all wore black. And that was the funeral for everybody that didn't pick me."

Despite not being selected as high as he believed he deserved to go, he was drafted into the best-case scenario he could've found himself in. The Green Bay Packers were coming off a NFC North title the year before, led by the 2011 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, who missed nearly half of the season due to a broken collarbone.

The 53rd pick also had a strong receiver corps around him, with Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. His next wide receivers coach would be Edgar Bennett, who won a Super Bowl with the Packers as a running back in 1996.

"We knew he was smart, and we knew he was tough," Bennett said about scouting and drafting Adams. "He also had traits that stand out. His ability to win one-on-one's and his ability to run after the catch. That's what stood out.

"When he came into the building, what was different about him was his approach, his attitude. You could tell that he had the mindset that he was going to outwork everybody and I'm going to earn it."

Success for Adams didn't immediately click in Green Bay. The Packers won 12 games, went to the NFC Championship with Aaron Rodgers claiming his second NFL MVP, but Adams' role was minimal. He finished the season with three touchdowns and less than 500 yards. The year after that, he only scored one touchdown and missed three games due to injury.

From the outside looking in, it appeared Adams had a lot to lose going into his third season, as rumblings of him being a bust started to get louder. However, from the inside looking out, Bennett knew the receiver was on the verge of emerging – especially after Bennett was promoted to offensive coordinator.

"It's just a part of the process, the growth, staying at it and staying committed to it," Bennett said about Adams finding his footing in the NFL. "Some things are out of your control, all you can control is your attitude and your effort and what you put into it. And that was him day one, he always had that work ethic. Just continuing to stay at it, harp on the attention to details and doing it the right way. Being on the same page with everyone and I think that's when you kept seeing jumps.

"He kept getting better and he went from good to great."

In Adams' third season with the Packers, and Bennett's first season as offensive coordinator, Adams had more receiving yards and touchdowns that he did in his first two seasons combined. The 12 touchdown season was a breakthrough for the young wideout, being the first of five seasons he's had with double digit touchdowns.

When No. 17 arrived to Las Vegas after being traded to the Raiders, one of the first people he saw walking around Intermountain Performance Healthcare Center was his old wide receivers coach/offensive coordinator. And he took no time putting a smile on Bennett's face, reminiscing about the old days in Green Bay.

"[F]irst thing I let him know, I said, 'Man, you got to ease up on the test,'" joked Adams. "That's the first thing I said to him, and he started dying laughing. E.B. has a lot to do with who I am today, just from the mental aspect of approaching the game because, I mean, this man used to put together some of the most impossible wide receiver tests to pass ever. I mean, it was almost like it was being set up. It wasn't fun."

When asked the tests, Bennett let out a roaring laugh.

"I didn't see it, but I heard about it," Bennett said grinning ear to ear. "Let me just say this, the tests were designed to make sure we were ready. But the most important part of the test, other than making sure we were prepared, I knew the people in that room – Davante in particular – were very, very, very competitive. And in whatever he's doing, he wants to win. So with that being said, that's why you make it competitive. Because he was going up against Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, and those guys are the best of the best when it comes to that kind of competitive nature.

"Without going into great detail as far as what was all on the test, the test was designed to make them compete at the highest level and be as detailed as possible. And he held his own."

Since his emergence, Adams has stacked multiple broken records, two first-team All Pro selections and five consecutive Pro Bowls. His trio of coaches aren't surprised by that historic success, even now as he basks in the prime of his career.

All three came at different points in Adams' career and represent different ideologies that have combined to shape him into his overall product now. Williams' faith, his belief in what Adams could become, gave him a foundation to grow. Add to that Antoine's fire, his push to fuel Adams' fierce drive and confidence, and No. 17 was on the verge of greatness. He just needed refinement, a patience and studious work ethic that Bennett helped instill in a young receiver trying to swim in deep waters.

But even with all of those qualities, something else shines through. Each coach was asked what makes Adams such a great receiver, and they all responded with the same answer, best summed up by Willams: his preparation.

"The one thing that I'd attribute to his great play on the field is his mentality," said Williams. "He's so locked in on a daily basis of being such a great receiver that by the time the game comes, it's almost like a psychological release for him. I think that's why his game is so intriguing to people, because people can see that without even knowing that. And I think that's a big deal as a coach.

"That's the biggest difference between the good players, the great players and the greatest players."

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