South Carolina’s Mike Davis sat back last season, albeit restlessly, and watched freshman running backs in the SEC rack up huge numbers.
There wasn’t much he could do. He was playing behind Marcus Lattimore, and even after Lattimore went down with a season-ending knee injury in late October, senior Kenny Miles moved to the forefront of the Gamecocks’ backfield.
“It was frustrating, just sort of waiting my turn, but it also helped me out,” Davis said. “I attacked the offseason as hard as I could. I didn’t need any extra motivation.
“I think that’s where most of my competitive edge comes from, being third string last season and not playing as much my freshman year as some of those other guys.”
They were widely considered to be the SEC’s holy triumvirate at running back entering this season, but Davis has outperformed all three through the first month of the season.
The 5-9, 210-pound sophomore leads the SEC in rushing with an average of 127 yards per game (508 yards). He’s averaging 7.2 yards per carry and has scored six touchdowns.
Davis will leave it to everybody else to debate whether or not he belongs in that elite class of SEC running backs. He’ll spend his energy proving on the field that he belongs.
“I think I’m in that mix, but it’s up to me to make sure I’m not left out,” Davis said. “A lot of people may be surprised by my performance. The thing is that I can play a lot better.”
One person who’s not surprised is Davis’ older brother, James Davis, who was a running back at Clemson and played briefly in the NFL.
James knew his brother was poised to explode this season after carrying the ball just 52 times a year ago and carrying that chip on his shoulder all offseason.
There were times this summer that James would receive videos from Davis where he was working out at 10 and 11 o’clock at night.
“I knew once he touched the field, people would find out immediately what type of player he was,” James said. “I talked to him about being ready when his time came. He saw how much playing time Gurley and Yeldon got as freshmen last year, and that just pushed him that much more.
“Once Mike got his chance, he was going to show that he was the real deal, too, and you’re seeing that now.”
In his own way, James has been his brother’s keeper. He took a large chunk of his signing bonus during his rookie season with the Cleveland Browns and moved his mother and two brothers out of a rougher part of Atlanta to a house in the suburbs.
They grew up in a housing project in Bankhead, just west of downtown Atlanta, and James wanted to get Mike away from the violence, drugs and any other potential trouble that might come his way.
So following his freshman year of high school, Davis moved with his mother and other brother, Harvey, to the Decatur area and transferred from Douglass High to Stephenson High.
“He’d be outside, and there would be guns and drugs all around him,” James said. “The good thing is that Mike had seen what I had done, making it to the NFL, and that kept him motivated. A lot of the people there in the projects where we grew up didn’t see that light at the end of the tunnel, but I kept instilling in him that, ‘Hey, you can make it if you stay on the right path.’”
Mike Davis still has family and friends who live in Bankhead, and he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
More importantly, he hasn’t forgotten about them.
“I think about them every day, whether I’m on the field or in class,” Davis said. “A lot of them will go days when their lights and power are off. That drives me and keeps me focused, remembering where I came from.
“A lot of the people I grew up with never had a chance to go to college, and some of them are in prison or even dead.”
Maybe that's why Davis treats every carry like it's his last, and that's whether he's bulling through three Georgia defenders down on the goal-line for 3 tough yards and a touchdown or ripping off a 53-yard touchdown run last week to trigger South Carolina's come-from-behind 28-25 win over UCF. He heads into Saturday's game against Kentucky with three runs of 50 yards or longer this season, including a 75-yarder against North Carolina and another 75-yarder against Georgia.
“I still have people texting me and saying they didn’t know I was that fast. I look at it like I didn’t think I was that slow in high school,” Davis cracked.
The combination of that breakaway speed along with his power, shiftiness in the open field and ability to catch the ball makes him one of the more complete backs in college football. Davis also has nine catches through four games.
He said watching the way Lattimore took pride in being such a complete back had a lasting impact on him.
“As much as I wanted to be out there playing, learning from Marcus was the best,” Davis said. “He was such a good guy, and it went deeper than just football.
“It’s my time now. I’m ready to step up any way I can. If that means, at times, putting this team on my back, I’m ready for it.”
The truth is that Davis has been ready.