The first couple of spring practice sessions were, as always, guys running around in shorts and helmets. You know that’s how it starts, and the clips of big plays are fun, but you know it doesn’t mean much. The next real, important football game played in shorts and helmets will be the first.
You may have things you wanted to see nonetheless. Maybe you wanted to see how Jalon Jones looks in his first collegiate action of any kind (not bad!). Perhaps it was the lineup on defense to see who would be next to David Reese II at linebacker (Amari Burney, and he looks good). Hopefully the top of your list wasn’t Jacob Copeland, since he’s been out with a hamstring.
For me, I most wanted to see how Malik Davis looks. The answer so far is “back to his old form”, and that’s good news for the Gator offense.
It’s easy to forget, especially if you’ve applied brain bleach to your memories of the 2017 season, that Davis was Florida’s best offensive player that year. I’m not sure it was close either.
It wasn’t any of the quarterbacks; Feleipe Franks was playing too early, Luke Del Rio only threw 25 passes, and Malik Zaire, well, wasn’t a playmaker. It wasn’t so much the receivers either. Brandon Powell had the most targets by a mile, but he averaged 9.7 yards per catch and a paltry 5.7 yards per target. Tyrie Cleveland wasn’t much more than a deep ball specialist, and Hammond and Swain were languishing with bad coaching. Lamical Perine lead the team in rushing yards, but Davis averaged 2.5 yards per carry more.
Everyone remembers the deep bomb to Cleveland to beat Tennessee, but it shouldn’t have come to that. Early in the fourth quarter, CJ Henderson took a Quinten Dormady pass to the end zone to put the Gators up 13-3. The Vols missed a field goal on the subsequent drive, and Davis took the ball 76 yards to the house on the first play after that. Only, he made a freshman mistake of not keeping good ball security all the way past the goal line and had it knocked out at the 2. Otherwise, it’d have been 20-3 and UT probably would’ve packed it in.
The next week against Kentucky brought the famous non-covered receivers, and Kadarius Toney had a couple of big plays to announce his presence on the team. Davis was the engine that kept the offense moving for a good chunk of the game, though, logging 93 yards on 21 carries. He kickstarted the drive where Cleveland was left uncovered for a score, personally moved the team from the UK 29 to the UK 8 on the third score, and rushed for 30 of the 63 yards on the game winning drive.
The Vandy game was Davis’s best, going for 124 yards on 17 carries for a 7.3 average. He then ran for 90 yards on a 6.4 average against LSU and 97 yards on a 5.4 average against Texas A&M in his final two full games.
Davis looked tentative at the beginning of 2018. It was understandable, coming off of his gruesome knee injury of 2017 and not being fully 100%. He then broke his foot in Week 3 and was done for the season.
I won’t say it was a good thing that he went out for the year, though the new redshirt rule was a good thing for him. It meant he didn’t lose a year of eligibility pending a potentially arbitrary NCAA waiver ruling. His going out did clarify a cluttered backfield situation however, and it gave Davis the chance to complete his recovery from that knee injury.
Now, Davis looks great in practice drills. There isn’t a shred of hesitancy in how he’s been going. He is cutting and accelerating without fear, and he looks as fluid as ever.
If you go on social media, you’ll find people already looking to name him RB1 for this year. That’s a little premature. For one thing, Perine has led the team in rushing two years running. Davis’s injuries have played into that for sure, but Perine has the history and experience on his side. He’s a more proven blocker too.
Plus as Dan Mullen mentioned during a press availability last week, Davis has missed a lot of practice time. He didn’t participate in the spring session last year and then of course didn’t do any in-season drills past the Colorado State game. He’s been studying the playbook and film in the mean time, but there is no substitute for actually doing something rather than reading about or watching it be done.
Still, Davis does have a high ceiling in Mullen’s offense. He has an extra gear that Perine doesn’t, something that makes him a dangerous player in space. Excellent vision to see holes and creases is what sets him apart, and that makes him a natural for running behind the zone blocking that Mullen employs so much.
I’ve mentioned this on GC before, but Davis’s 6.7 yards per carry rate in 2017 was the highest of any UF running back with at least 50 carries since Chris Rainey’s 7.2 in 2010. It was the most anyone has had with at least the 79 carries that Davis got that year since Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps had 7.5 on 99 carries in 2009. Rainey only had 6.5 on 89 totes that year.
If that’s what Davis could do in the McElwain/Nussmeier offense, it’s tantalizing to think of what he could do while fully healthy in Mullen’s offense. That’s why I was so happy to see Davis look like he’s 100%, even if it was only in drills and non-contact play reps. As long as Davis can break his injury curse, he should have a huge year.