There will be a point this season when we'll know whether Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis has turned a corner.
It won't be after he mauls a quarterback or fills a rushing lane with his 6-foot-5, 313-pound frame. Davis already has shown flashes of being a dominant interior lineman. When Penn State guard John Urschel was asked on an ESPN.com chat last month to name the toughest lineman he blocked last year, he picked Davis, a backup for the Hawkeyes, ahead of players like Purdue's Kawann Short and Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, both second-round picks in April's NFL draft.
Davis can deliver a great play or two. But the true gauge for the Hawkeyes junior will come when opposing offenses sustain drives. Davis will be on the field for Play 1 or Play 2. If he's still there for Play 8 or Play 9, Iowa will be a lot better off.
"I believe my best football is ahead of me," Davis recently told ESPN.com. "I had some problems with my knee, I had some mental work being an every-play guy, and I'm still working on that. You've got to do it every day. You can't come out here like, I had a good practice today,' and then slack off tomorrow. You try to put days back to back to back."
Davis appeared in 11 games as a reserve in 2012, recording 14 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, to go along with a forced fumble. Hawkeyes defensive line coach Reese Morgan said the experience, even during a rough 4-8 season, bolstered Davis' confidence that he's built to last.
After being limited by a wobbly kneecap early in his career, Davis attacked conditioning and strength training during the offseason. He hang-cleaned 395 pounds -- a Hawkeyes defensive tackle record -- and boosted his squat max by 100 pounds.
Davis also shaved one-tenth of a second off of his 10-yard dash time, going from 1.7 seconds in 2012 to 1.6. He came into camp a little heavy at 313 pounds -- "I'm paying for it right now," he said with a laugh -- but hopes to get down to 310 before the season kicks off Aug. 31 against Northern Illinois.
"He developed a lot of strength and confidence with the records, the work ethic," Morgan said. "Being a big guy, sometimes they're worried about running out of gas and pushing themselves to get out of their comfort zone. Carl started doing that a little bit in the spring, worked hard through the summer, really did some diligent preparation."
Head coach Kirk Ferentz describes Davis as an "Iowa guy," meaning Davis didn't walk onto campus game-ready but has developed himself into a position to contribute significantly as an upperclassman. What stands out about Davis is his size. Iowa's recent defensive tackle standouts -- Mitch King, Matt Kroul, Karl Klug, Mike Daniels -- all played around 280 pounds. Only Christian Ballard (297 pounds) approached the 300-pound mark. Davis, meanwhile, was 295 when he signed with Iowa in 2010 and quickly went north of 300.
"We haven't had many guys like him," Ferentz said. "Colin Cole was never as big with us as Carl is currently. Carl's a guy who has a great attitude, he’s got good ability, good size. We’re all confident this is going to be his time to really step up and play well."
Cole is the gold standard for Iowa defensive tackles. He earned first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-America honors for Iowa's 2002 co-Big Ten champion team, recording ridiculous numbers for a defensive tackle: 85 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, nine sacks, 16 quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and two fumbles recovered.
If Davis comes anywhere close to those totals, Iowa's line will be much improved.
"I want to have at least 40 tackles and eight to 10 sacks," he said. "If you shoot high, you see where you fall, and you might not be disappointed."
Davis is a big man with big goals. One of his challenges, somewhat ironically, is to use his size more to his advantage.
"He's a big guy who thinks he's a finesse guy, instead of being a physical guy," said Morgan, who attributes Davis' approach in part to his background as a basketball player. "Now he’s starting to become physical. That's really what you like about Carl, understanding that assignment. He's really a caring, solid person. As a player, he's really grown a lot, and we’re excited to see what he's going to do this fall."
A Sterling Heights, Mich., native, Davis grew up a Michigan fan and wanted to play for Lloyd Carr but didn't attract much interest. He actually became sold on Iowa after attending the Hawkeyes' 30-28 win against Michigan in 2009 under the lights at a geared-up Kinnick Stadium.
When Davis arrived, Iowa was enjoying arguably the most successful run of defensive linemen in team history (three were drafted after the 2010 season, and another followed after 2011). Daniels took Davis under his wing, and Davis admired the power Daniels generated despite being a smaller interior lineman (6-1, 280).
Davis still reviews practice clips from Daniels, Ballard and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a first-round pick in the 2011 draft.
"I want to be one of those guys that can be the next name that pops up," Davis said. "Only time will tell, and I've got to put in the work."