Just five years ago, the Arkansas Razorbacks backfield contained two future first-rounders (Darren McFadden and Felix Jones) and another running back/fullback 'tweener (Peyton Hillis) who was one of the best backs in the NFL in 2010. In Hillis' big year for the Cleveland Browns, the Hogs unveiled another back with the potential for pro success in his future. Knile Davis tore up the SEC at the ripe old age of 18 in his sophomore year.
Big things were expected from Davis in 2011, including a run at a Heisman Trophy. Instead, he broke the same right ankle he fractured in high school and missed the entire season. He's ready to go full speed to open the 2012 campaign. Obviously, whether Davis can regain everything he had before the injury will greatly affect his 2013 (or 2014) NFL Draft stock, but what exactly did he have before the ankle gave way again?
Davis is built to last, at a shade under 6'0" and 225 pounds. One glance at Davis and you know those numbers are legit. He is a very sturdy back and not top-heavy or high-cut. In fact, the first things you notice when you look at Davis are his tree-trunk thighs:
Davis has a good initial burst for a big back, and he has a second gear. He doesn't have a fifth gear. Davis isn't going to pull away from anyone in the open field. He will get back up to the second gear relatively quickly after contact. Even though his legs are big, Davis is not a heavy-legged plodder. At times, he displays great feet for a big back, but at other times he's clumsy. Still, tight-roping the sideline like this for a touchdown is impressive at any size:
His overall athleticism is probably average, but above average for a big back. He is somewhat stiff and not very sudden, although Davis might not be completely aware of that judging by the way he runs.
Davis too often looks like a big back who thinks he is a scatback. He does have some subtle moves in the hole, but he will rarely elude a tackler in open space. His moves are mostly ineffective, as seen in this sequence:
Davis tries to put a move on the defender:
But he is easily tackled:
Another problem with Davis' penchant for trying to make moves he doesn't have in his repertoire is that he generally has to gather and loses momentum when he changes direction. He also tends to bounce runs to the outside, which is a waste of his powerful frame and build.
Davis also squanders some of his natural physical gifts by running upright instead of running behind his pads and turning them into striking surfaces.
Watching a back as big as Davis try to win with barely existent shiftiness instead of his obvious trump card of power is frustrating. In this instance, Davis is one-on-one in the open field with a defensive back:
Instead of trucking the smaller defender or at least dragging him a few yards, Davis gets stoned for a loss:
Davis rarely initiates or wins collisions, pushes the piles or gets significant yards after contact. He does tend to fall forward and break some weaker tackle attempts, but Davis does not run like a power back.
What Davis can do with his bulk is wear down a defense. He has great stamina, and in the fourth quarter of games, more of those tackle attempts become weak enough for him to break. Davis' burst is intact while the defense is dragging from having to wrap him up so many times earlier in the game.
So Davis can be a workhorse who subjects a defense to relentless body blows, but can he actually play all three downs? Davis has decent hands out of the backfield, but he is only used on screens and dump-offs, so he won't be a passing game weapon by any stretch. He is a willing blocker and one who can stalemate defensive ends when he squares up and hits them. When Davis tries to go low to cut block, he can be embarrassingly defeated and leave his quarterback open to a big hit. He is probably going to be a two-down back in the pass-happy NFL.
Davis is Shonn Greene with more urgency, or Ron Dayne with more burst. Does that equal a productive starting NFL running back? With the amount of talent at the position, I have my doubts. Like Greene, I expect Davis to get drafted in the 50-100 range, assuming his ankle checks out at the combine. His lack of a well-rounded skill set or clear union of gifts and playing style make Davis a second-tier back, although he could be in a class without a clear first-tier back if Marcus Lattimore struggles this year.