It’s 2017 and the Kentucky Wildcats are on the verge of snapping a 30-year drought over the Florida Gators. The highlights of the night are Kentucky blowing coverages on Tyrie Cleveland and Freddie Swain, and a Kadarius Toney pass to Cleveland to set up a touchdown. The real star of the night was a freshman running back from Tampa.
“Malik put the team on his back. He was carrying us,” defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson said of then-freshman running back Malik Davis.
Playing in just the third game of his career and with only five carries in the first two games, the Gators turned to the kid who rushed for 2,469 yards as a senior at Jesuit and 33 touchdowns. Davis carried the ball a career-high 21 times for 93 yards against Kentucky, converted a late fourth-down conversion, and also hauled in a pass for 11 yards.
Davis’ performance that day earned him more carries in the following weeks. He rushed for a career-high 124 yards against Vanderbilt the following week, then 90 more yards on 14 carries against LSU and 18 carries for 97 yards against Texas A&M.
Then it all came crashing down with a knee injury that would sideline Davis for the rest of his freshman campaign. He would return in 2018 under new head coach Dan Mullen but carried the ball just 13 times in the first three games before a broken foot ended his sophomore season. 2019 saw Davis take a backseat to Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce. He carried the ball just 34 times for 86 yards and became, to most, an afterthought.
When Davis was asked recently about being a forgotten player, he smiled.
“That’s fine, I love it. Let them forget, I like it,” he said.
To refresh your memory, Davis ranks fourth all-time in school history for most rushing yards by a true freshman (526 in just seven games). Davis was the bright spot in an otherwise disastrous season.
There is no denying, however, that Davis just didn’t look like his 2017 self in 2018 and 2019. Admittedly, Davis says he didn’t feel confident in his knee when he first returned and then again on his foot when he came back in 2019. The injuries also caused him to miss valuable time in the weight room and offseason program. Not this year and the difference is drastic. Davis is up to 205 pounds and looks bigger than he ever has, tipping his hat to Nick Savage and the strength program.
“I think the main thing coming back from injuries and the injuries that I had is just being able to come back and being comfortable, and trusting that you’re okay,” Davis said. “Now that I got a whole offseason with coach Savage—This is my first real offseason with coach Savage being not injured—so now that I got that whole offseason with coach Savage I definitely feel more comfortable and stronger.”
His head coach has noticed as well. When Mullen took over the team in 2017 all he had to see of Davis was that electric film from his freshman year before the knee injury. When Davis was able to return it didn’t look like that old film. Now, with his legs back under him, Davis is reminding his head coach that he’s still the same player on that film.
“I want to say, Malik Davis to me looked like the Malik Davis I saw when I got here before I became the head coach,” Mullen said following the Gators’ second scrimmage. “I haven’t seen that in a couple of years. I’m thinking, ‘Boy, he’s really back to where he wants to be.’ I was really impressed.”
Davis is continuing to fly under the radar this offseason. Dameon Pierce was the presumed starter, given the way the reps were handed out last year and the Gators’ got a former five-star transfer in Lorenzo Lingard. That’s fine for Malik. He’s going about his business and being overlooked has become normal to him. Not to say that he’s resigned to being the third back in the stable, he isn’t. He’s using it all as motivation.
“Hearing that and just thinking about people forgetting, it gives me chills. It pumps me up,” he said.
“When people go down with injuries, people tend to forget. That’s how sports go. I’m ready to refresh their memory.”