Keionta Davis dipped his right shoulder and raised his forearm to shove the blocker back on his heels. In the same motion, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomore defensive end then planted his foot in the ground and raced around the edge, making a beeline for the quarterback.
Davis reached out to tag quarterback Jacob Huesman's red no-contact jersey, causing Marcus West, his position coach, to yell out, "I see you, Keionta! Atta boy!"
The move came on one of the first plays of the live-snaps portion of Saturday morning's Mocs practice at Scrappy Moore field, and just after group drills where West had preached a variety of ways to pressure the quarterback.
"We've always built this defense around pass-rushing ends and cover corners," head coach Russ Huesman said later. "The more you have up front who can rush the pass, the better you are, and Keionta showed signs last year of becoming a really good player for us.
"His offseason is as good as anybody I've been around, and he's at a point where he realizes how important it is to compete every day out here. His transformation from this time last year has been huge, and he's letting his natural ability take over."
When Davis stepped on the Finley Stadium turf for the 2013 season opener, it was his first game action in more than two years. A preseason all-state nominee at Red Bank, Davis never played a down that season after tearing ligaments in his right knee just two weeks before the first game. He then redshirted his first year with the Mocs before earning the start in place of a suspended teammate against UT-Martin last season.
By his own admission, he struggled. But six games later, against The Citadel, injuries forced Davis back on the field during a crucial portion of a close game.
"I had no other choice," West said. "Everybody in front of him was hurt, so I looked at Keionta and said, 'All right, man, here we go.' This time you could see a difference in how he played right away."
Davis recorded 1.5 sacks on The Citadel's final drive, helping seal a 28-24 come-from-behind win. The next week, at Appalachian State, Davis had 2.5 tackles for loss and a crucial quarterback hurry that led to linebacker Nakevion Leslie's game-winning interception return for a touchdown. A starter in three of the Mocs' final four games, Davis added another sack at Samford and earned a spot on the Southern Conference All -Freshman team.
"The Keionta from game one to game 12 was two totally different people," West said. "Just the confidence he got from getting reps and having success on the field, he was big-time for us by the end of the season, and now we're excited about what he can bring to the defense this year.
"Having [SoCon defensive player of the year] Davis Tull at one end and Keionta on the other side, that's what it's all about. Now we have two ends that teams have to plan for, and there's a lot of talent pushing him to keep his spot, so that competition is only going to make him and the team better."
Fellow ends Tull, Zach Rayl and Vantrell McMillan are sitting out spring drills, giving Davis the chance to get more repetitions and solidify his spot in the rotation heading into preseason camp.
"Being more consistent is what I want to work on this spring," Davis said. "I'm a lot more confident in myself and knowing what I'm supposed to do at all times now, and I want teams to respect me on the other side as much as they respect Davis Tull. I want to be all-conference and help us be the most dominant defensive line there is.
"That only happens if you show up at practice to work and get better every day."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...