FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard didn't hide his feelings about Adrian Davis on Thursday.
The senior, who has played alongside Davis the past two seasons, watched the defensive end all summer. He noticed Davis' work in the weight room. He saw him grow as a leader.
So he's expecting Davis to enjoy a breakout year.
"I think AD is just as talented as any defensive end in the country," Sheppard said. "I think he's going to have a big season and dominate a lot of linemen."
Davis, who is entering his third year as a starter, has always been viewed as one of Arkansas' steadiest performers.
But after adding much-needed size and strength, and impressing teammates enough to be named one of the team's six captains, it's clear the Razorbacks believe the senior is ready to become a disruptive force up front for the defense.
"You'll have to account for Adrian because he's going to be a playmaker," safety Matt Harris said.
Davis, who collected 43 tackles and five sacks in 10 games last season, hopes to live up to the billing. The good news is that he feels much more capable of doing so as a senior.
Last year, Davis entered practice weighing 238 pounds, but couldn't keep it on during the season. He dipped below 230 at his lowest and It affected him on the field. Particularly in the run game, where bigger offensive linemen controlled Davis.
He did have bright moments. Davis earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors after collecting three sacks and an interception against Auburn. But he was inconsistent, too.
However, Davis has weighed in between 250 and 255 pounds every day this preseason. He has maintained the weight by following a strict diet. And he feels it is paying off.
"Last year was real hard," Davis said. "You're banging every week against the best conference day-in and day-out. Going against them at that weight wasn't good for me."
The added mass has given Davis more confidence without eliminating his speed, according to strength and conditioning coach Jason Veltkamp. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said it also has helped improve his practice habits.
"He's running full speed to the ball a lot better. He's playing harder," Robinson said. "He's made some growth, not only physically at the size he's at and the weight that he's at, he's made some growth as a human.
"He's only going to be better for our team because of it."
That's Davis' goal for 2009. He knows the Razorbacks are counting on him to become one of the SEC's best defensive ends during his final season. So he doesn't want to disappoint.
"I'm going to go out here and fight hard for my team," Davis said. "I'm going to try to be there when they need me and try to go hard every play I can."
Inside the ... Defensive Line
Best of the Bunch: Malcolm Sheppard. The senior has been called one of the SEC's most underrated players, but is on the Outland Trophy and Bednarik Award watch lists. After putting on 20 pounds, Sheppard will anchor the middle.
Watch Out For: Tenarius Wright. The redshirt freshman has bounced from linebacker and defensive end, but seems to have found a home in the trenches. Wright is quick, athletic and should provide much needed depth at the position.
Biggest Strength: The Razorbacks have valuable experience and leadership with Sheppard and Adrian Davis. The two were voted defensive captains and will lead the way in 2009.
Biggest Question: Will the line generate enough of a pass rush after struggling to get to the quarterback in 2008? The bulked up group must find ways to create havoc this fall.
Projected Starter(s): DE — Adrian Davis and Jake Bequette; DT — Malcolm Sheppard, Zach Stadther
Key Contributors: Damario Ambrose, Tenarius Wright, Lavunce Askew, DeQuinta Jones, Patrick Jones, Alfred Davis
That Figures: 13.5 — Number of tackles for losses Sheppard had last season, the most since Jamaal Anderson in 2006.
The Lingo: "We're going to bring pressure on the quarterback. But when we don't, we're starting to feel more confident about our four down rush guys." — defensive coordinator Willy Robinson on his defensive line.
Teammates Expect Big Things From Davis
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