Ferocious linebackers and monstrous defensive tackles are two things that will certainly strike fear in the heart of a running back. However, there’s not a defender out there, no matter how big or scary they may be, who can terrify a back as much as the thought of experiencing a serious leg injury can.
While no running back will ever openly admit it, obviously the thought of going down with a leg injury always has to be creeping somewhere in the back of their minds. They all know that one play, one wrong twist and one bad blow can change their career in an instant.
Ask Gale Sayers.
Or Terrell Davis.
Or Bo Jackson.
Or one of the many other promising running backs who have had their careers derailed by devastating leg injuries.
A running back’s legs aren’t just a pair of ordinary body parts. They’re his tools. They’re his gifts.
A sprained wrist? That’s fine. Tape it up and get back out there.
A cracked rib? Just gut it out, toughen up and play through the pain.
But a leg injury is simply a different story for a running back. There’s no telling how a great back will respond and perform after experiencing a serious leg injury, regardless of how well their rehab goes or how encouraging their prognosis may be.
There’s simply no way to gauge if a running back’s legs will still have the same type of juice after experiencing a leg injury until they come back out and make that first cut and absorb that first big hit.
This fall, college football fans will be given the chance to see just how well two of the best backs in the country, South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas’ Knile Davis, will be able to bounce back from serious leg injuries.
At this time last year, many were expecting Lattimore and Davis to be a part of what was supposed to be a heated four-horse race, one which also included fellow conference counterparts in Alabama’s Trent Richardson and Auburn’s Michael Dyer for the 2011 SEC rushing title.
Sadly, though, two of those horses didn’t even make it to the finish line.
Davis, who was entering 2011 as the conference’s leading returning rusher after posting a 1,322-yard effort on the ground as a sophomore the year before, suffered a fractured ankle during a team scrimmage in August, which kept him out of action for the entire season.
Lattimore, a former highly touted 5-star recruit who dazzled onlookers as a freshman in 2010, totaling over 1,600 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns, went down at the halfway mark of the season after suffering a torn knee ligament in a 14-12 win over Mississippi State in mid-October.
What was so surprising to see last year was how well both the Razorbacks and the Gamecocks managed to perform without their star backs, as both teams ended up finishing the 2011 season with identical 11-2 records and Top 10 national rankings.
Still, you could tell that there was a key element missing in both offenses, and it’s obvious that both squads are absolutely ecstatic about getting their top rushers back for 2012.
With Richardson off to the NFL, and Dyer having transferred to Arkansas State, Davis and Lattimore will now be the two featured star backs in the SEC in 2012, and they’ll be the ones who will be expected to battle it out for the conference's rushing crown next season.
The question is, which back will have the bigger comeback year, Davis or Lattimore?
While Davis is back out on the field already, participating during Arkansas’ spring practice sessions, Lattimore is still sitting out, rehabilitating and getting back up to full speed after surgery to repair the damage to his knee.
Based off of the type of injuries that each player experienced, it's clear that Lattimore has more work to do on the road to recovery this offseason, as a major knee injury basically affects every type of running a back can do, whether it’s straight ahead or lateral.
That’s part of the reason why I’m expecting a bigger season out of Davis than I am out of Lattimore in 2012. I say part because I also think Arkansas’ offense as a whole is better than South Carolina’s. Besides USC, I don’t think there’s another offense in the country that will be as explosive as the Razorbacks will be next season.
QB Tyler Wilson, who will be a top 10 pick in the 2013 NFL draft, has already proven that he has the ability to stretch out a defense with his arm and keep it on its heels, which should definitely give Davis plenty of room to run, as teams won’t be able to stack the box next season.
With Wilson, WR Cobi Hamilton and TE Chris Gragg all keeping defenses honest, no defense will be able to just key in on Davis in 2012.
As for Lattimore, he’ll be joined in the backfield by one of the SEC’s most promising quarterbacks, Connor Shaw, who proved his worth last year after being thrown into the fire following Stephen Garcia’s midseason departure, leading the Gamecocks to a 7-1 finish to end the 2011 season.
In terms of style and physical makeup, the 6’1’’, 226-pound Davis and the 6’1’’, 232-pound Lattimore are a similar type of specimen, as both have the power and athleticism to either run over defenders or run by them.
It should be a treat to watch both backs compete for the spotlight in the SEC next season, and if both have the type of bounce-back campaigns that many are expecting, they should end up competing with Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle to be the first running back selected in the 2013 NFL draft.
Both Arkansas and South Carolina will likely enter the 2012 season as Top 10-ranked national title contenders, and both Davis and Lattimore will likely be on the short list of Heisman favorites.
With Richardson and Dyer now out of the picture, Davis and Lattimore will be the two clear-cut favorites in the race for the SEC rushing crown in 2012, and they should be two of the biggest names to watch in college football next season.
Both will be playing with something to prove this fall, and it will certainly be interesting to see how each of them are ultimately able to perform after the injuries that they sustained in 2011.
While I think Davis will enjoy the more dominant, eye-opening campaign, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the race for the conference rushing title came down to the final week of the season in Atlanta.
Yes, a Knile Davis vs. Marcus Lattimore battle in the SEC championship game would be must-watch television for any true college football fan, and given the way that Arkansas and South Carolina are set up for 2012, it’s certainly in the realm of possibility.