(STATS) - NFL prospect Keionta Davis enjoyed his summer experiences mentoring in a Chattanooga intervention/prevention program which works with youth who have been referred through the juvenile court or school systems.
"A lot of guys, they come from neighborhoods or families or an environment where they can't get what everybody else has," Davis said. "Like me growing up, I had a lot of support. Everybody doesn't grow up like that. When you see that, you've got to appreciate what you have."
Having grown up in the Tennessee city and starring at defensive end for the hometown Chattanooga Mocs, Davis is ready to inspire in a different way.
Fresh off a solid performance at the Senior Bowl two weeks ago and headed to the NFL Scouting Combine later this month, Davis is carrying the FCS banner, trying to be much more than a "small-school" prospect for the April 27-29 draft in Philadelphia.
"It's just motivation. You've got to prove a point every time or they're going to say he's only an FCS-type guy," Davis said. "I don't want to be only a lower-level competitor. It's motivation; you've got to go in there every day and prove yourself. It's what you need at this level; you've got to have some type of motivation to push yourself."
As passing offenses have evolved, there's been a higher demand for edge rushers who can apply pressure on quarterbacks. The 6-foot-3, 274-pound Davis led the Southern Conference in sacks in each of his final two seasons, and the 31 in his career were second-most in Chattanooga history.
He was a first-team All-American as a senior, and his ninth-place finish in the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award voting for national defensive player of the year was the highest ever for a Mocs player.
But now Davis is back to proving himself all over again.
After graduating with a business management degree in December, Davis has trained during the draft buildup at EXOS just outside Pensacola, Florida. He had a sack and another half-tackle for loss at the Senior Bowl - college football's most prestigious all-star game. He will be joined at the Combine, to be held Feb. 28-March 6 in Indianapolis, by former Chattanooga teammate Corey Levin, an All-America offensive guard.
"It was pretty good," Davis said of the Senior Bowl. "Just going in there and get to compete with some of the top guys coming out this year, getting to talk to some scouts, telling them some things they wanted to hear and showing them some things they wanted to see. So all of that was pretty good to do. I answered some of those question marks about myself."
The Combine will be more about measurables and testing. Athletic for his size, he seeks to break 4.8 seconds in the 40-yard dash and leave even less doubt.
Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting followed Davis closely at the Senior Bowl and was among those who left impressed. Davis, a cerebral player who feels he gains an advantage in game film study, has a thick lower body and does a good job of playing through the whistle.
Said Galko: "My favorite small school defender, Davis is not only athletic away from his frame and converts speed to power very well, but he has developed rush moves as a bull rusher, offering inside moves, and finishing to rip and bend moves on the perimeter. He flashed against Alabama (in a November game), especially early on. That all but secured himself as a top-100 pick. He's one of the most talented edge players in the 2017 NFL Draft, and I wouldn't be surprised if he emerges as in contention to be the top small-schooler drafted."
Davis, who turns 23 on March 1, is somewhat of a late bloomer. A torn ACL derailed his senior season in high school and kept FBS suitors away. But former Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman and his staff were well aware of who was in their backyard.
After Davis redshirted and continued to get stronger in 2012, the Mocs turned Davis loose on the SoCon a year later and he eventually emerged out of the shadow of former Mocs defensive end Davis Tull, who was the conference's defensive player of the year three times. Davis earned that honor as a senior.
"My biggest thing is my pass rush. I've just been honing in on that since I got to college. It really stood out over the years, it got me to where I am today," he said.
"You have to be able to do it all, not just on first down, second down or not just on third down, you've got to be able to stay in the game and sometimes play inside a little bit in pass rush, stand up, you've just got to be versatile. That's one of those positions that you've really got to be an athlete to play that position because you never know what a team might want you to do. You might drop back, you might pass rush. You have to prepare to stop some of the top quarterbacks in the world - the Tom Bradys, the Drew Breeses, the Matt Ryans. They want to get those guys on the ground. You have to get there in multiple ways."