SANTA CLARA – The 49ers’ locker room was nearly empty an hour after Sunday’s exhibition opener.
Chris Davis, who joined the team's offseason program as an obscure defensive back on the 90-man roster, meticulously got dressed at his locker stall inside Levi's Stadium. He turned around and was surprised to see a dozen reporters and several cameras waiting for him.
“Do you guys want to talk to me?” Davis asked with an element of surprise.
When Davis (5-foot-10, 201 pounds) began working with the first-team defense as the nickel back during the offseason, it was a bit of a surprise.
After all, the 49ers spent seven draft picks the past three seasons on cornerbacks. Davis was undrafted in 2014. He signed with the San Diego Chargers and appeared in 12 games as a rookie before the Chargers waived him in October and he ended up with the 49ers’ practice squad in November.
Yet, he played his way into contention for a major role in the 49ers' defense. Jimmie Ward served as the 49ers' nickel back the past two seasons. Now, Ward is playing right cornerback, opening the way for Davis to enter games as part of the team's sub packages.
“I was undrafted, so I come to work every day with my job on the line,” Davis said. “This game is how I take care of my family, so every day I come in and try to compete. As long as I’m healthy, I feel like I have a good opportunity to win the slot position.”
During his exit interview with 49ers general manager Trent Baalke at the conclusion of last season, Davis wanted to be assured he would not be viewed merely as camp fodder this season.
“I came here to compete,” he said. “That’s one thing I asked Trent at the end of the season: ‘Would I be able to compete for a starting position?’ He told me, ‘Of course.’ That’s what it is right now, and I’m trying to make the best of my opportunity.”
Davis was best-known for one of the more memorable plays in college football history. In the 2013, Davis returned a missed field goal 100 yards on the final play of the game to provide the winning points for No. 5 Auburn over top-ranked Alabama.
But it's his non-flashy, workmanlike approach to the game that has impressed the 49ers' new coaching staff.
“He’s done a really good job since he’s come in,” 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley said. “He’s got good quickness. He’s really tough. He’s got good coverage ability. He can blitz. For me, I’ve never seen him play before, so everybody had the clean slate and he’s just worked his way up. I think he was very solid last night, too.”
Davis limited rookie wide receiver Braxton Miller to a 4-yard completion on a third-and-9 play to force a Texans punt in the first quarter. On the first series of the second quarter, Davis broke up a pass from quarterback Brock Osweiler intended for Miller on a fourth-and-3 play.
“He’s taken advantage of the opportunities he’s had,” 49ers coach Chip Kelly said. “I think he’s really sharp. He’s very sharp as a football player. He’s physical. He’s not the tallest corner we have, but he’s thick and he’s strong and he’s physical. He matches up well and he also does a good job blitzing from that position because he has a little bit of size to him. So, he’s done a nice job so far and we’ll continue to see if we can expand his role.”