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Running back Davis might be answer to Steelers' sputtering kick return game

Chris Adamski
| Thursday, June 22, 2017, 5:57 p.m.
Steelers running back Knile Davis goes through drills during ota practice May 24, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back Knile Davis goes through drills during ota practice May 24, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Steelers running back Knile Davis practices during minicamp, Tuesday, June 13, 2017.
Steelers running back Knile Davis practices during minicamp, Tuesday, June 13, 2017.

After a year in which he bounced between destinations, Knile Davis is striving for some stability by returning to a place he had been with regularity over his first three NFL seasons: the end zone at the end of long kickoff return.

Signed by the Steelers in March, Davis is listed as a backup running back. But particularly after the team drafted James Conner in the third round in April, Davis' most likely path to a roster spot figures to be as a kickoff returner.

That's a spot the Steelers long have tried to solidify.

“It's something that I love to do,” Davis said of returning kicks, “something that's helped me stay around the league, something that gave me another avenue to make a name for myself.

“I'd never returned kicks in my life. (Kansas City special teams coordinator) Dave Toub gave me an opportunity in my rookie year, and I told him I would do whatever would help the team out. So I went for it, and I had success.”

Davis returned a kickoff for a touchdown during each of his first three seasons after being a third-round pick of the Chiefs in 2013. The latter touchdown came on the opening kickoff of a 2016 AFC wild-card playoff game in Houston, igniting a 30-0 Chiefs win over the Texans.

That is the type of play that for too long has been missing from the Steelers special teams. They haven't had a kickoff return touchdown since 2010 and haven't had one that didn't involve a trick play in a decade.

A highly regarded recruit with a 1,322-yard rushing season at Arkansas, Davis wasn't asked to be a kick returner until he got to the pros. It didn't take long for him to make an impression. In his third preseason game — at Heinz Field, no less — Davis took a kickoff 109 yards for a touchdown.

By Week 12 of that regular season, Davis had his first NFL regular-season kickoff return touchdown.

“There's some scheming to it,” Davis said of being a successful kick returner, “(and) some misdirection. But at the end of the day, it is backyard football. You just need to know where to be.”

Davis said he was told he would get a chance to be a kick returner for the Steelers this season. He also was on virtually every other special teams unit during organized team activities and minicamp this spring.

Then there are duties on offense. During OTAs and minicamp, Davis was given a greater share of snaps at running back than he might have expected. Because of an injury, Conner has been a sporadic participant in workouts since he was drafted. All-Pro Le'Veon Bell was not present at any of the workouts after offseason groin surgery and because he has yet to sign a contract.

“I'm just ready to take advantage of any opportunity I get,” Davis said. “Not many come like this. And I just want take advantage of it and show my progress that I've learned over the years.”

Among Davis' lessons was the sometimes-fickle nature of pro football. During a 19-day span near midseason, Davis went from the Chiefs to the Green Bay Packers to the New York Jets and back to the Chiefs. He was traded, waived, cut and signed.

“It was business. That's how this business is,” Davis said. “I'm not the first one, and I'm not gonna be the last. Just got to roll with the punches.”

This spring, Davis rolled into Pittsburgh on a one-year contract for the league minimum for a five-year veteran. Offensively, Davis has 1,076 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns in 284 touches in his NFL career.

“The learning curve is shorter after four years, so you've just got to pretty much just learn the terminology and then come take what you've learned and bring it here,” Davis said. “I'm happy to be here. I feel like I can help out.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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