GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Freshman running back Malik Davis was a split second from giving Florida its first rushing touchdown since last October. He was a simple lunge from maybe forcing his way into a larger role within the offense.
That’s the difference between a 74-yard touchdown run and a 72-yard run and fumble at the goal line, though.
Instead of just discussing Davis’ impressive burst and play-making ability this week, that talk was diluted by questions about Florida’s struggles holding onto the football.
“If you don’t put the ball on the ground there, it might be … you know what I mean?” Florida coach Jim McElwain said, intimating that a touchdown there and a 20-3 lead early in the fourth quarter might have prevented a tense final few minutes in that eventual 26-20 win over Tennessee.
“Let’s call it the way it is,” he said. “Let’s just call it the way it is. As you know, good football teams take care of the football, and obviously, in two games we’ve put it on the ground.”
But here was the encouraging sign from McElwain’s comments this week. It doesn’t sound like the Florida coaches are going to let that fumble prevent Davis from continuing to get more involved in the offense, and that’s a good thing.
With star running back Jordan Scarlett suspended indefinitely, Davis has looked like the Gators’ best ball carrier through two games.
That’s not even really a criticism about sophomore Lamical Perine or senior Mark Thompson. Perine has earned a role in this offense with what he showed last year, and while he also had a fumble last weekend, he looked good overall in averaging 5 yards per attempt on his 11 carries. His fumble also came at the end of a long rush of 21 yards. Thompson, meanwhile, has looked fine carrying the football as well, but his struggles in blocking have been glaring.
The point is all three running backs have had their flaws. The bigger point is that Davis has simply shown something extra when given the chance. There seems to be a next level to his abilities, and even the hint of an explosive playmaker is highly encouraging for this molasses offense.
“He brings a little juice, there’s no doubt. He’s a little bit different,” McElwain said. “He’s a slasher. He does a really good job of sticking his foot in the ground and running through inside arm tackles. And yet, he’s a guy, like I said, with a lot of these young guys, [it’s about] expanding their roles as they continue to learn. And no one felt worse after the game than he did, and yet he’ll learn from it. It’s good to have, especially where we’re at [with] that position.”
Yes, yes it is.
Davis only got 4 carries against Tennessee, but he turned those touches into a team-high 94 yards and — again — nearly iced the game with a long touchdown run. He only got 1 carry in Week 1, and it was the Gators’ best rushing play (8 yards) against Michigan.
It’s a small sample size, but also a highly encouraging one.
And his emergence really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Davis rushed for a ridiculous 2,469 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior at Tampa’s Jesuit High School. Overall, he rushed for 7,025 yards during his four years at Jesuit, obliterating the all-time Hillsborough County rushing record.
He’s continued to impress since joining the Gators. The reports were encouraging throughout preseason camp. Buzz emanated from Davis’ performances in the scrimmages closed to media. His teammates, meanwhile, started seeing it even earlier.
“I knew that from when I was in OTAs. I just watched him; you can tell he’s like elusive. He has that drive,” Florida wide receiver Freddie Swain said. “He caught a flat and really just got out of there, left everybody. So I was like, yeah, he’s going to be all right.'”
Aside from freshman slot receiver Kadarius Toney, there’s no one fans are clamoring to see earn a bigger role more than Davis.
He might have forced the coaches’ hands if he could have finished that 74-yard touchdown last weekend, but it sounds as if the fumble won’t undermine his chance for more touches this week.
“I think last year we might have jumped the gun a little bit on Mark [Thompson], you know, for putting the ball on the ground early,” McElwain said, acknowledging the penalty levied for fumbling last year. “Look, they aren’t trying to, right? But what you can do now is critically go through the techniques that it takes to squeeze it and know that on a run like that, you’re not out of trouble until you’re 5 yards deep in the end zone.”
There’s no telling when Florida is going to snap that prolonged and inexplicable rushing touchdown drought, but if the coaches show some trust and confidence in Davis, it would not be a surprise at all to see him standing 5 yards deep in the end zone with the football still in his grasp this week.