Florida is stacked at running back this year. Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis, and Nay’Quan Wright all return, former 5-star recruit Lorenzo Lingard is reportedly a lot more healthy than he was last year, and fellow former 5-star recruit Demarkcus Bowman arrives from Clemson. While Dan Mullen has gone with large running back rotations, including a three-headed attack last year, there aren’t enough snaps in a game to reasonably feed five tailbacks. Something has to give.
Not long after last season, I had the idea that Davis might move out to the slot this year. Kadarius Toney no longer has the spot locked down, and Davis showed himself to be an able pass catcher. Many other people have had the same thought independently of me. It’s become one of the most widely-discussed potential personnel changes for 2021.
There were no reports out of spring that Davis was working as a receiver, so it’s still in the realm of speculation. That realm has gotten so large that I think it’s worth walking through all of the considerations of such a move.
The kernels of truth
Davis had the trust of the coaching staff last year, toting the rock the second-most of anyone on the team with 66 carries. He was behind only Pierce in that category and had almost 20% more carries than Wright did on the year.
In the receiving category, Davis was fourth with 31 catches and fifth with 377 yards. Both figures led all running backs. His catch count was higher than those of wide receivers Jacob Copeland and Justin Shorter, and his yardage was ahead of Shorter as well. He was a key figure in the demolition of Georgia, hauling in five balls for an even 100 yards.
He didn’t overly distinguish himself as a blocker, but otherwise Davis was a versatile element to the 2020 offense. The receiving numbers in particular were something any coach would love to have out of the backfield. He reportedly runs something in the 4.5 range in the 40, so while that’s not Toney-fast with his 4.39 at pro day, Davis is fast enough to play more out of the backfield.
And, as Brandon Powell showed a few years back, it is possible for the right kind of player to make the transition from running back to receiver.
“For a running back”
Davis was an excellent receiver for a running back. The qualifier “for a running back” is not something to be overlooked.
Powell did well in his transition to receiver and has bounced around the NFL some since leaving Gainesville. Doing so was a tremendous accomplishment. He also had three years to work up to it, moving out wide when the new staff arrived in 2015 and playing through 2017. He was a high-volume target by the standards of the offenses he played in, catching more than 40 passes in each of his junior and senior years. He was under ten yards per reception both seasons, though, and he is also under that mark for his pro career.
Davis already proved to be more of a vertical threat than Powell ever was on his wheel routes last fall, but you don’t run a lot of wheels from the slot. He has shown some elusiveness that he’d need in order to play in the slot, but he’d also run a completely different set of routes than what he’s done so far.
Perhaps no one in the country is better at teaching route running than Billy Gonzales is, so the coaching acumen is there to help guide a transition. I don’t think a single fall camp would be enough to make Davis a complete receiver from the slot, though, and that’s what we’re looking at if he really didn’t do much, if anything, there in the spring.
One reason why Davis was so successful catching the ball is that defenses seldom put one of their best cover guys on a running back (insert joke about Georgia not putting anyone on a running back here). Davis still beat some good coverage and made some impressive catches, so it wasn’t just a case of him clowning slow linebackers all year long. However getting to go up against less-than-stellar coverage at times did play a factor in his stat line.
Teams are increasingly turning better coverage guys into inside nickel corners as offenses have been using more and more dangerous slot options. Davis might still win some battles, but it’d be harder for him to repeat his success.
What made Davis so dangerous as a receiver is that he had to be taken seriously as a running threat too. If a defense was to go dime expecting him to be mainly a pass target, the offense could run the ball more easily. If the defense respected the run more, then he could run patterns from the backfield or even line up out wide sometimes and create real dilemmas for opponents. That kind of versatility is what makes Mullen’s offense sing.
I don’t know that moving Davis to full-time receiver is the ultimate answer. I do expect him to continue to be a good pass catcher, and pairing him up in two-back formations with a Pierce or a Lingard might be the easier solution to getting more running backs more snaps. His flexibility would all the more easily create problems in those sets when they’re combined with tempo to prevent the defenses from substituting. If opposing DCs go heavy because that’s what you do when you see a two-back set, then Davis might really get to clown slow linebackers all year long.
Absent any intel from spring that had Davis moving out of the backfield, I think the simplest expectation is that he won’t become a full-time slot option in 2021. I wouldn’t rule it out entirely since he does have speed and moves, but if it happens, it likely would be a part-time gig.