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Defensive lineman Toyvian Brand, Keionta Davis and Vantrell McMillan, from left, participate in the first day of football practice for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
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Bulging disk delays NFL opportunity for Mocs' Davis

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Keionta Davis held out hope, although he pretty much knew the outcome.

The former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga All-America defensive end, projected as an NFL draft pick in possibly any of the final five rounds, hoped he would hear his name called last week. He hoped somebody would roll the dice. He held a party Friday evening at Southside Social and even had a celebration Saturday.

But he knew.

He knew about the bulging disk in his neck, and he knew that NFL teams knew. It had pretty much made him off limits to NFL teams, although a couple were still interested in possibly bringing him in as a free agent. He could have a surgery, but he'd be out a year easily with that. He knew the self-healing process was going to take time as well, and that it had scared most teams off.

But the 2016 Southern Conference defensive player of the year and two-time All-American still held out hope.

"I was optimistic about it," he said Monday. "I didn't want to be a downer, but I kind of knew. I had told some family members so they knew the situation, and I tried to keep some hope that a team would take a chance on me, but they didn't. A lot of teams wanted me to come to mini-camp, but the only thing I can do is rest.

"There's no rehab. I just have to let my body heal."

Davis found out about the injury at the NFL scouting combine, which kept him from participating in any of the drills. He wasn't sure what had happened, as he'd just participated in the Senior Bowl about a month before. He still participated in UTC's pro day, which gave him hope he would be drafted, and it also frustrated him that he couldn't have performed on a national stage. Doctors and trainers asked him if he'd felt the pain at any point during the 2016 season, which he hadn't.

His healing could be a short-term process, or it could be a long-term one. He is supposed to have another meeting in June with Dr. Frank Cammisa, one of the top spinal doctors in the country, and if Cammisa has seen "significant" shrinkage, he will clear Davis to play.

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If the June meeting does not reveal enough healing, Davis essentially would have a "redshirt" season, and he has spoken to the new UTC coaching staff about going through the 2017 season as a graduate assistant on Tom Arth's first Mocs staff. It would give him an opportunity to remain in Chattanooga and continue to heal.

"It's an opportunity to give knowledge back to my guys," Davis said. "I can stay around football and go back to graduate school. I've got some things planned, and I'm taking it step by step, but I can stay healthy, stay in shape and stay ready any way it goes.

"I'm not worried. It will all work itself out. It's a small delay, but I've been in this situation before."

The similar situation was a torn ACL suffered prior to the 2011 football season, Davis's senior year at Red Bank. Teams once interested fell off, except for UTC, which offered him a partial scholarship that became a full ride fairly quickly. With former head coach Russ Huesman's desire to redshirt freshmen anyway, he was able to take his first year as a college player to get stronger and get better.

It seems that he'll be doing the same thing in his first year post-college: taking the time to get stronger and, potentially, better. Once cleared, he likely would be a highly sought free agent and could participate in training camp.

Davis met with a number of teams during the pre-draft process, including what was at the time considered a "secret" meeting with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who flew to Chattanooga to conduct a private workout at Scrappy Moore Field with just Davis and offensive lineman Corey Levin. Levin was selected in the sixth round by the Tennessee Titans.

"It's not an unknown feeling. I've been there before, so I know how to control my emotions," Davis said. "I'm just going to keep myself motivated. There are no limitations on my body, so I can get in better shape, be a better player and be a better prospect coming out of the draft."

But that doesn't mean the ordeal hasn't been hard. He watched Levin get drafted, then saw former teammates and fellow 2012 UTC signees C.J. Board (receiver, Baltimore Ravens), Dee Virgin (defensive back, Houston Texans) and Vantrel McMillan (outside linebacker, Seattle Seahawks) earn mini-camp invitations. While he's extremely happy for them and said he would "guarantee they'll do well," he's still eager for his time to shine.

And once it happens, watch out.

"I'm trying to hold all these emotions in," Davis said. "The day I can let it loose, it will be fun. I'm a passionate player, and when I get back we'll have battles and things like that.

"But I'm ready to get back on the field. When I get back, everything will be all right."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.

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