Mike Davis came on so strong last season it was as if Marcus Lattimore had never left. South Carolina didn’t have to deal with the pain of losing its legendary running back because Davis stepped right into his place, seamlessly providing the same kind of power and speed at the position fans and coaches had become accustomed to.
Steve Spurrier knew Davis would be special even before last season's season opener. He told anyone who would listen how good his sophomore would be. But even now, some seven months after South Carolina blistered North Carolina on primetime television, the head coach of the Gamecocks is marveling at how some people are still sleeping on his running back.
“In practice yesterday we were watching him run a little bit and somebody says, ‘People don’t realize how fast he is,’ ” Spurrier told ESPN.com. “The first game last year he ran sort of an off-tackle play against North Carolina, and their defensive back took a bad angle and he broke down the sideline and I think, man, he’s going to have a 40- to 55-yard run and he ends up going all the way 75 yards, and they couldn’t catch him. We said, ‘Wow.’ He’s sort of sneaky fast.”
Davis ran for 100-plus yards in seven of his first nine games last season, outpacing SEC favorites Todd Gurley, T.J. Yeldon and Tre Mason. Through the first week of November, Davis ranked ninth in the country in total rushing yards (1,058) while also averaging the 13th-best yards per carry (6.37, minimum 100 attempts). He carried a heavy load with 166 carries, but he didn’t lack burst, rushing for 10 or more yards 26 times -- more than Mason, Yeldon and a fella by the name of Johnny Manziel.
But the wear and tear eventually caught up with him. Davis would rush for only 54 yards against Florida, miss the next game against Costal Carolina and fail to break the 50-yard rushing mark in each of South Carolina’s final two games against Clemson and Wisconsin. Even though he finished a respectable fourth in the SEC in rushing yards and fifth in all-purpose yards, it wasn’t his best. He simply wasn’t himself.
“It slowed me down a lot,” Davis said. “I don’t think people realized how much I was injured. The small injuries added up and hit me toward the end.”
Thankfully for South Carolina, Davis doesn’t appear to have the injury concerns of Lattimore before him. It was a series of minor injuries that took their toll, and now after a few months off, Davis is back to being fully healthy, he said. He’s taking it easy this spring and enjoying the emergence of his fellow running backs, most notably Shon Carson and former four-star David Williams, whom Davis called “electrifying” and someone “you like to watch in practice.”
All eyes are still on Davis, though. The rising junior has gone from unknown to a marked man in the SEC in one season. According to one sports betting site, Davis is at 18-to-1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy, trailing names such as Jameis Winston, Braxton Miller and Marcus Mariota, while also coming in ahead of the likes of Nick Marshall, Trevor Knight and Dak Prescott.
What does Davis think of the attention?
“It’s an honor, especially coming from where I’m from,” he said. “Everybody still calls me Little James or James Davis’ brother. I kind of wanted my own name growing up.”
Those who saw him play last season understand that Davis is his own man. When he’s healthy, he is as good as any running back in the country. Spurrier didn’t hesitate to say he could be the best running back in the SEC.
Dylan Thompson, who has already been named the full-time starter at quarterback by Spurrier, said it’s almost unfair to have someone like Davis to hand the ball off to.
“It’s kind of like you’re playing Madden or something,” Thompson said. “If you need yards, you just hand it off and let him go. It’s cool.”
The good news for both South Carolina and Davis is that he won’t have to carry the entire load this fall. Spurrier said he’ll give the ball to Davis only three or four times during scrimmages this spring, noting how he has the enviable problem of having “too many running backs” to incorporate into the lineup.
Beyond Carson and Williams, whom Thompson said ran a sub-4.4 second 40-yard dash in spring testing, South Carolina also has Brandon Wilds to turn to.
There’s no question, though, that Davis will be the centerpiece.
Now at “110 percent,” he wants to get even better than he was last season.
“If there’s anything I can do to get better and have an edge on my opponent, I’m always down for it,” he said. “So as far as getting faster, getting in the weight room and getting stronger, I’m always for it.”