After two years as a special teams mainstay, Darnell Davis earned a defined role on the Rutgers defense.
On a defensive line with three fifth-year seniors and two team captains, Davis flies under the radar to casual observers.
But in his fourth year with the program, the junior walk-on plays a pivotal role on the defensive line.
“I’m a tackle right now or end (on third-down speed packages),” said Davis, who forced a fumble in Rutgers’ win over New Mexico last Saturday. “… I mean, I was playing a little bit of Jack (pass-rush defensive end in 3-4 defense) in training camp, which I enjoy. But I also enjoy tackle and whatever (the coaches) want. Whatever they need me at, I’m here for the team. It’s all for the team.”
From Union, N.J., Davis played at Avon (Conn.) Old Farms prior to Rutgers. He joined the program in 2013 as a preferred walk-on and chose the Scarlet Knights over a scholarship offer from Purdue and a preferred walk-on offer from South Carolina.
An encounter with former Rutgers coach Doug Graber, who coached from 1990-95, led Davis to Piscataway.
“(Graber) was the old football coach, head football coach here,” Davis said. “He told me about Rutgers. I’m from New Jersey, and I’ve heard great things about Rutgers. Academics is off the charts, athletics is off the charts and then I knew we were going into the Big Ten.
“I was like, ‘Why not take that opportunity to play in one of the best leagues in the country?’ I took it, I had to go with it and I love Rutgers. I’m happy with my decision. It’s probably the best decision I’ve made in my life.”
Davis entered Rutgers as a linebacker and soon converted to defensive end, where his game translated.
“I converted to the rush end, and it’s kind of a hybrid between D-end and linebacker,” he said. “And then, when coach (Chris) Ash came in, he played with four down D-linemen. Rush (end) is kind of both, so I said, ‘I’ll stick with D-line.’ And I got my hand down now, so, I mean, it’s going pretty well. I enjoy it, you know? It’s pretty much the same thing.”
Physically and technically, Davis worked on his craft at the position. With veterans Darius Hamilton, Quanzell Lambert and Julian Pinnix-Odrick ahead of him, Davis picked the brains of the leaders along the defensive line.
“With those guys, it’s all about leadership — everything they do,” Davis said. “I mean, they work hard. It’s some little details like going to meetings on time. I learned that from them. I learned about their style of play. They show me things — show me how to work with my hands.
“Coming from linebacker, I didn’t have such great hands. And as time progressed, I learned from them how to use my hands, how to get by, how to slip from under blocks and they taught me a lot with that.”
Along with junior Myles Nash, another converted linebacker who also appears in the same speed packages, Davis said he knows they will have big shoes to fill.
“We have to step up,” Davis said. “We have to fill in those shoes, which are pretty big shoes to fill in. And we have to do everything right, on and off the field — not just on the field — and still buy into the culture and we’ll be good. Nash and I will be really good.”
“The journey — it’s been a long journey,” Davis said. “It’s been tough, but you have to go through adversity. That’s going to make you stronger. But the guys in my room, my D-line room, they really brought me up. They really taught me the ways. And I feel like I’m learning so much from them just on the field and even off the field. Like I said, the little details that really matter. And all you have to do is do your job and buy into the culture and you’ll be golden.”