From the moment Quanzell Lambert tore his ACL, everything changed for Darnell Davis Jr..
In a next-man-up position, Davis stepped in as a junior walk-on and started the final eight games of the 2016 season.
Under the expectation to lead as a starter in the physical trenches of the Big Ten, Davis made it his mission to mold his body accordingly.
“I think my body’s improved the most,” the 6-foot-2 Davis said. “I’ve gotten faster, and I’ve gotten bigger. I never carried this weight around. Last year, I was 252. Now I’m 258. I’m moving faster, moving better.
“I might have to learn a new position (going from linebacker to defensive end two years ago), but I’m for the team, man. Individual success ain’t going to get you far. Team success — or wherever they need me, wherever they want me — I’m down for it.”
Davis did more than just fill in for Lambert. In 12 games, Davis finished with two sacks and eight tackles for loss.
“As a freshman, you can’t have that mindset of, like, ‘All right, I’m going to redshirt, I’m going to sit,’” Davis said. “You’ve got to have that (competitive) mindset from the jump. Even if it’s not your time, your term will come. Your opportunity will knock at the door. When that opportunity did, I have to take it. Now I’m happy with it.
“I need to be a leader in the D-line room, a leader for the team. I’m comfortable with that position. I feel good about it, very good.”
With the resurgence of battery mate Kemoko Turay on the opposite end of the line, Davis sees the same improvements coaches Chris Ash and Shane Burnham harped on throughout the spring.
“Since last year, I’ve seen maturity, and he’s probably the most talented kid I know,” Davis said of Turay. “He’s become a leader now. He’s doing great things. He’s rushing every time, he’s making sacks, he’s humble, very good kid, and he’s going to be very successful.
“But Ash talking him up — when he sees talent, he sees talent. Kemoko’s definitely one of those guys.”
Davis said Burnham continues to drill the technicalities of the position into the heads of the defensive ends.
“That man, he’s taught us a lot of things,” Davis said of Burnham. “He’s a very technical guy, and technique’s his key. Just playing ball, that comes with the game, but he’s been teaching me all hips, hands. That guy, he knows what he’s talking about.”
While Davis is aware of his progression, he knows there is room for improvement.
Pass rush is one of those areas, and Rutgers could use it after it tied for 12th in the conference with 21 sacks last season.
“Me, personally, I want to improve on my pass rush,” Davis said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. Run, that’s all technique — that’s shooting your hands, that’s explosiveness. Pass rush, that’s more of a skill, and that’s what I really want to improve on — my hands off the pass rush, my hands all the time.
“It gets repetitive, but football’s a repetitive game because one play, you might do it right, and the next play — even if you know it’s coming — you might do it wrong.”
After he approached his final spring camp with a starter’s mentality, Davis attacks his final offseason the same way.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Davis said. “Like we said, time has flown by … I feel great coming off the ball. My body feels great. My hands are getting faster. I’m getting more of my details off — I’m getting well with that, getting my technique down.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of improvement to improve, but I’ll be good. I’m just working hard, trying to get everything down so once training camp comes, I kill it.”