As he walked quickly toward trainer Mike Goforth about halfway through the morning practice earlier this week, Virginia Tech defensive end Jim Davis clearly was worried. All he needed to communicate that to Goforth was: "Pec."
A torn pectoral muscle had kept Davis sidelined all of last season and made him more cautious than usual during spring practice. Any serious relapse would deny Davis the chance for a breakout senior season that starts with top-ranked Southern California on Aug. 28 and the Hokies a superior pass rusher and kick blocker.
Goforth checked Davis's range of motion, which indicated nothing remotely worrisome, and had the area wrapped in ice for the remainder of practice. Davis was back in full force for the afternoon session, smiling and nasty throughout.
"He makes a difference out here," Coach Frank Beamer said.
Davis is especially disruptive to quarterbacks. Of his 37 tackles in 2002, his last season of competition, nine were for losses. He also had 51/2 sacks. In the first intrasquad scrimmage of fall drills, he had a sack and blocked two field goal tries.
Injuries and immaturity have hampered Davis at Tech, with the pectoral surgery causing him more concern than it should have. It took place in the spring of 2003 and was mended enough by late August for the coaches to consider playing Davis last season. They opted for a redshirt season as a precaution.
"In the spring, I was still kind of timid, didn't do too well," he admitted. "But I figured if I tip-toed through this, I wouldn't be any good to the team or myself. When I came back [for preseason camp], the first day of practice I let go. And it was really, really good. I felt like I was a freshman all over again, felt like I had my old body back."
Davis helps make the defensive line a unit with talent, depth and experience. Davis is running with junior Darryl Tapp at one end, with redshirt sophomore Noland Burchette and redshirt freshman Chris Ellis sharing time at the other. The tackle rotation begins with the Lewis brothers, junior Jonathan and redshirt senior Kevin, and includes redshirt senior Jason Lallis (DeMatha), redshirt freshman Carlton Powell and redshirt junior Tim Sandidge.
The unit might be one of the few that will not be overmatched against the Trojans, which lost four starters on the offensive line from last season's co-national championship team.
"We're pretty confident," Davis said. "We work hard, have good chemistry."
Defensive line coach Charley Wiles is pleased about Davis for a variety of reasons.
"We're not having to deal with the immaturity issues we have over the years," Wiles said. "Nothing major: being on time, practicing hard, needing a tutor. We've always felt that carries over. You don't find too many kids that are not living their lives right that are performing on the field.
"I think Jim's grown up and realizes this is his last go-round. He's pleasant. It used to be 80-90 percent of my time was dealing with issues other than football."
Davis, who will turn 23 in early October, has demonstrated some of his maturity by spending extra time studying film. He tried a move during drills the other day that he had picked up from pass-rusher extraordinaire Simeon Rice. It involved some quick foot movement to get the opposing tackle off balance and a spin move to the inside. It worked splendidly against 6-foot-7, 331-pound right tackle Jon Dunn, a starter most of the last two seasons.
"Threw me off a bit," Dunn said, "but good to see. He's opened up his [repertoire of moves] a bit. His patented move is a bull rush. But he's spinning, he's skating, he's juking."
Said the 6-3, 278-pound Davis, "Gotta keep 'em guessing."