COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina’s Mike Davis believes he’s ready to start having the season he and many others expected from him when the year began.
The Gamecocks’ 1,000-yard rusher was one of the most dynamic backs in the Southeastern Conference a year ago, breaking tackles and breaking long runs to help his team go 11-2.
But Davis has been bothered by rib problems and a sore ankle through the first month. He said he feels healthier than he has all season as South Carolina (3-2, 2-2 SEC) heads to Kentucky (3-1, 1-1) on Saturday.
“I can tell you I feel better than I had a couple of weeks back,” he said this week.
That’s welcome news for a South Carolina team needing playmakers.
Davis showed signs of the player he was in 2013, putting up 104 yards rushing and a touchdown in the Gamecocks’ 21-20 loss to Missouri last weekend. It just Davis’ second game of 100 yards this season. He had seven such showings in South Carolina’s opening nine games last fall and finished with 1,183 yards, the fourth highest single-season total in school history.
The 5-foot-9, 223-pound Davis was considered a likely candidate to jump to the NFL — Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said as much several times this offseason — with a similarly strong season.
Davis acknowledge in August that if he performed the way he knew he could, the NFL was his next step.
Instead, the younger brother of former Clemson 1,000-yard rusher James Davis has gone missing at key points in games and gone down easier than he did before.
He had just six carries for 15 yards in the season opening loss to Texas A&M before leaving the game with bruised ribs. In a win over Georgia with the Gamecocks looking to run out the clock, backup runner Brandon Wilds got the bulk of carries (four rushes to Davis’ one) on the game-clinching series. While Davis broke the century mark against Missouri, a large chunk of it came in the second quarter when he had his only three runs of 10 yards or more.
Davis called his season “shaky.”
“It could be better without these nagging injuries,” he said. “I’m doing OK, not great. But it’s a team effort.”
And South Carolina is a team with a banged up offense.
The Gamecocks are 11th in SEC points scored this season at 33 a game. Quarterback Dylan Thompson missed Monday’s practice with what Spurrier called a sprained neck. Top receiver Pharoh Cooper missed practice Monday and Tuesday because of a foot injury.
Both returned to work later in the week and are expected to play at Kentucky.
Spurrier said the Gamecocks wasted Davis’ strong game by giving up two late touchdowns to Missouri over the final seven minutes. “We lost a lot of good statistics last week. Mike Davis had over 100 yards, had over 18 carries, and we ended up losing the game, which is the first time, I think, that’s happened,” he said.
Davis was fourth in SEC rushing last fall. His 368 yards this season leave him ninth in the league this year, including behind Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott.
Davis’ slow start doesn’t make him any less dangerous, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said.
“Mike is just a very good football player, always going forward. Very difficult to tackle. He’s got everything you want in a running back, just the balance, the speed, the vision,” he said.
Davis hopes he’ll start showing all that again this weekend against the Wildcats. He ran for 106 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-28 win over Kentucky last year, a game better remembered for NFL No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney drawing Spurrier’s anger for pulling himself out with an injury a short time before kickoff.
Davis felt strong and healthy in that one and believes he’s close to regaining that form.
“I’ll just try and play my best and lay (it) on the line for my teammates,” he said. “As long as we win and it’s productive, I don’t care what my stats are.”