FOXBOROUGH — Keionta Davis wasn’t about to get caught up in the moment. He acknowledged being excited to get the start for last Thursday’s exhibition game against the Eagles, but didn’t pause to let the moment soak in.
“There was no time for that,’’ said the defensive lineman. “I just had go out there and try to perform. If you start thinking about that stuff, it’s just going to put you behind. It’s time to play — you can think about all that other stuff another time.’’
Davis’s appearance with the first-stringers may have surprised many, but he has been surging in camp, rotating in with the starters, and getting plenty of snaps off the edge on the inside.
“It felt good to go out there with the ones,’’ said Davis. “It felt good that coach trusted me to go out there and play.’’
The road to his first taste of NFL success has been a long one for Davis, a standout edge rusher at Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he posted 31 sacks and twice was named an FCS All-American.
Davis was projected to be a mid-round pick in 2017, but a bulging disk discovered during his Combine physical changed that. He fell off the draft boards and radars of most teams — but not the Patriots.
He arrived in New England last August to ostensibly begin a medical redshirt season as he rehabbed the bulging disk. It wasn’t a foreign concept to Davis, who also sat out his senior year in high school because of a torn ACL.
“It’s been kind of the same process,’’ said Davis, who added that it “feels amazing” to be healthy again.
Davis used his time to not only rehab but to concentrate on all the off-the-field work that goes into being a complete player.
“The time off definitely helped me out a lot. Learning the defense [and] learning from the other guys in the film room,’’ said Davis. “Guys like Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown — those guys do a great job of breaking down the film. So, it’s just learning those little tricks of the trade and how to be a professional.’’
Davis played off the edge in college, but his excellent combination of size (6 feet 3 inches, 280 pounds) and power has allowed him to fit into multiple spots in camp. He has that quickness to beat offensive tackles as an end, plus the strength and leverage to be effective against interior linemen. His skill set is somewhat reminiscent of Flowers’s. The shift to inside work has been a labor of love.
“It’s going good. It’s my first time doing it but I work on it every day in practice,’’ said Davis. “Just trying to be versatile. Anything I can do to help the team — whether it’s rushing outside, rushing inside — playing inside on early downs. Just trying to be reliable and versatile.”
His work is paying off with playing time.
“He still has a lot of things he needs to improve on and refine and react quicker to and so forth, but that comes from not having actively played football for a year or a little more than a year,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “It has returned and hopefully those things will come back to him and his reactions and all will continue to improve. He’s done a good job. He’s in good condition. He’s worked hard. I like what he’s been doing.’’
Davis is part of a quartet of second-year defensive linemen (along with Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers, and Adam Butler) who built a tight bond and are each others’ biggest supporters.
“Those are my guys, man,’’ said Davis. “We always hang out. We had those rookie meetings last year, so we went through everything together.’’
Davis spent lots of rehab time with Rivers, who also sat out his first season because of an ACL tear.
“We had lot of time together. Watching film [and] working on pass rush moves together,’’ said Davis. “So definitely that time was good. We build a lot of camaraderie and now when we’re out there together, it’s pretty fun.’’
All four had strong outings against the Eagles with Butler and Rivers posting first-half sacks and Wise providing a consistent pass rush as well.
Davis, who played a team-high 54 snaps, joined the sack pack in the second half, registering 1½.
“It felt good. It was like a relief — ‘I got it, now stop thinking about it,’ ’’ said Davis. “It was a sigh of relief because it’s been a while since I had one.’’
When he got back to the sideline, his comrades were waiting for him.
“They were really happy for me — all the guys,’’ said Davis. “They know how much we all work — so any time any of us goes out there and succeeds we’re all happy.’’