Mike Davis (Curtis Wilson-USA TODAY Sports)
By Avery Wilks, GamecockCentral.com
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Being favored to win the No. 1 tailback role by the slimmest of margins painted a bullseye on the back of Mike Davis's garnet No. 28 practice jersey heading into fall camp, but the sophomore from Lithonia, Ga., seems all but immune to the pressure and stress that generally comes with preseason position battles.
"I'm turning up," said Davis with a grin. "It's going great so far. I'm just out here having fun, that's all."
A former four-star prospect who rushed for 1,923 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., Davis swam up the depth chart at South Carolina last season as fellow tailbacks Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson and Marcus Lattimore went down with injuries. Davis rushed for 275 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman, including a 12-carry, 43-yard performance in the 27-17 victory against Clemson, where his brother James Davis starred from 2005 to 2008.
A few flashes of brilliance in his first season weren't enough to guarantee Davis the starting job at running back though, as redshirt sophomores Wilds and Carson have returned from injuries that held them out last season. Both present threats to the number of carries Davis will get this season, but the 5-foot-9, 215-pounder isn't concerning himself with matters outside his own control.
"I'm here to be the number one running back," Davis said. "But that's up to the coaches. That's not my decision."
What is under Davis' control is his own preparation, which he is very concerned with. The "Most Improved" running back of the spring added 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and is even faster than he was a year ago. Known for his agility and ability to slash through microscopic holes out of the backfield, Davis worked this offseason on rounding himself out as a complete back. That included getting better at breaking tackles, picking up blitzes and working on his pass protection - something running backs coach Everett Sands doesn't take lightly.
"I got better with [my pass protection], and I think I shocked the coaches with that coming in this year," Davis said.
Becoming more of a multi-dimensional back allows Davis to adapt and taking advantage of defenders, he added.
"It all depends on what the defender does," Davis said. "If that defender sits, then I'm running him over. If that defender takes an angle, I'm going to give him a move and make him miss."
In USC's first scrimmage of the fall Saturday, he played sparsely but took four carries for 27 yards.
"I only had four carries here and there, I was in and out," Davis said of his performance. "But it wasn't too much. I think we got the better of the defense that day. The receivers were catching balls and everything but overall as a team I think we're coming along pretty well."
Davis said the team has run a variety of two-back sets in practice, lining up with both himself and either Wilds or Carson on the field at the same time. The team has him taking carries out of both the shotgun and I-formation, but Davis said he has no preference how the ball is handed to him this fall.
"Whatever comes, I'm here for it," Davis said.
Though Davis appears to have the slight edge, coach Sands says it's still a tight three-man race at running back, but one that he's happy to have.
"I feel very fortunate to have three guys that I can pull and not have a second thought about getting them into games," Sands said. "I'm still looking for somebody to emerge as that guy that's going to be the first one that runs out there on August 29."
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