If there was a time for Keionta Davis to become one of the faces of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga defense, the time is now.
At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he has the size. He has the skills. And now he'll have the opportunity, as the defensive line will be replacing four valuable contributors from a year ago, including end Davis Tull and tackle Derrick Lott, who are currently in NFL training camps.
Davis was named second-team All-Southern Conference by both the coaches and media in 2014 after registering 5.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and an interception in his sophomore campaign opposite Tull, the three-time SoCon defensive player of the year.
Defensive line coach Marcus West said Davis' success could hinge on who becomes the guy opposite him. In 2014 Davis was the complement to Tull, and as he started to come on as a player, Tull was freed somewhat to make plays. Now that mission falls upon a number of guys — Toyvian Brand, Vantrell McMillan and Tennessee transfer Justin King, to name a few — to become the playmaker opposite Davis.
"Keionta getting better starts with practice," West said. "He's got to be dominant every time he's on the field, because if they don't know, then why is he out there? Our offense has to know when he's out there, and then he has to take the practice field to the game."
Davis has the ability to fall right in line with the recent dominance of Mocs defensive ends — a trend that started with Josh Beard and Josh Williams and continued with Tull, a four-time All-American.
"It starts with the player," West said. "They've got to feel 'the rush,' and if they get it they want more. They want to know how to be the best. They have to want to go out on their own time and want to be dominant, and want to prove themselves."
Davis never crossed paths with Beard while at UTC, but he did a lot of learning behind Williams and Tull. His biggest transition now will be from a guy who played a lot of snaps but has only five career starts on his resume, to a guy who will be the leader from the defensive end position. He will begin the season as one of three Mocs defensive linemen who have started a game, along with Brand and tackle Josh Freeman.
Davis said being a leader "has come pretty fast. I went from being a redshirt freshman who barely knew anything to a guy making plays. It's come fast, but those guys in front of me led me in the right direction. I feel I have all the tools; now I just have to show up every day and make sure I'm ready to go to work.
"I just have to have a positive attitude, keep everybody up and ready to work, but to make sure we all hold each other accountable. If I mess up, I want the other guys to be able to say something to me. We all hold each other accountable."
He said this past week that his individual goal for the 2015 season was 15 sacks. He also wants to follow Tull as the SoCon defensive player of the year and an All-American.
"We expect to play 15 games, so that's one (sack) a game," he said. "I can't be Davis Tull, but I can be me, and I can be the best me I can be."
Hearing those words was music to West's ears.
"If you'd asked him a year ago, he would have said maybe 10," West said. "He would have said, 'I don't know. Maybe double digits?'
"Look out. It sounds like he's matured he's unleashed."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.