There did not seem to be anything out of the ordinary about Malik Davis when he first arrived on the Florida campus this summer. He was just another face in the freshmen crowd.
“He came in pretty small, so I was like, ‘Hey, he might have to end up with a redshirt on,’ ” senior safety Duke Dawson said.
In other words, typical true freshman.
But, as Davis has shown on the football field the past several weeks, there is nothing typical about him when he has a football in his hands.
“He’s about as natural as you will see running with the ball,” running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said Wednesday. “No wasted movement. Putting his foot in the ground, getting up field, getting vertical, making the first guy miss. You can’t coach that. Some people got it and some people don’t.”
Davis has got it.
Showing natural gifts for running the football, Davis has already established himself as the go-to guy in the running game, and the offense.
Down by 13 points in the fourth quarter at Kentucky two weeks ago, the Gators put the ball in Davis’ hands and he delivered, picking up critical yards and first downs to help ignite the 28-27 comeback victory.
It was more of the same last Saturday against Vanderbilt. Game on the line in the fourth quarter, the ball in his hands again, Davis sprinted 39 yards for a touchdown on a fourth-and-one play to seal the Gators’ 38-24 victory.
“He’s just a great weapon for us, being such a young kid coming in and dominating from the beginning,” sophomore offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor said. “He’s just a great weapon for us.”
Davis has shown promising flashes from the beginning, from that very first carry against Michigan that went for eight yards. Since then, his emergence has been rapid.
He had what would have been a 74-yard touchdown run against Tennessee that ended up being a turnover when he was stripped of the ball just before crossing the goalline. Still, he finished with 94 rushes on only four carries.
A week later, he played a pivotal role in helping bail out the Gators in Lexington, rushing for 93 yards, most in the second half, on 21 carries. That performance led to his first collegiate start last Saturday against Vanderbilt, and he came up big again, rushing for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
“I feel like he’s probably the smoothest runner (among the three tailbacks),” middle linebacker David Reese said. “He’s a natural when
he gets the ball. He’s smooth. He has great vision. He
sees the hole and he hits it hard.”
That first impression Dawson had of Davis back in the summer turned out to be way off.
“He’s a phenomenal guy,” Dawson said. “He’s come on quick as a young guy. He runs hard. He doesn’t run like he’s just 195 pounds. That’s something you like to see in a small back like him. He’s very explosive and he’s going to be great at the University of Florida and do many things.”
Like many good running backs, the former Tampa Jesuit star seems to run with anger, with purpose, with something to prove.
Despite the fact he was a four-star recruit and finished his high school career as Hillsborough County’s all-time leading rusher with 7,025 yards, Davis was overlooked by many of the nation’s top schools, including Florida initially.
The Gators, like others, did not get seriously involved in his recruitment until late. Once that UF offer finally came, Davis accepted.
“The thing with this kid is he’s got a chip on his shoulder,” Seider said. “He still carries some of that stuff where he feels like he got overlooked. Even getting here, think about when that happened for him, he was like one of the late guys that they went in on at the running back position.
“He carries that chip on his shoulder. Not in a negative way, in a positive way that helps keep him motivated.”
Seider said what separates Davis from other young backs he’s coached is his football IQ. He quickly learned an intricate UF offense and is now confidently making plays in it.
“The thing that you like about this kid is his FBI — football intelligence,” Seider said. “He picked things up and it carries to the field. You don’t have to tell him twice. For a freshman, especially the type of offense we carry here, you’ve got to be able to retain things. You got to be able to carry it over to the field. You got to be able to think on your feet and he does a great job of doing that.”
UF coach Jim McElwain often talks about teachable moments that stem from a player’s actions on the field. Davis’ two biggest teachable moments so far have both come from big plays he’s made — the 72-yard run against UT where he lost the ball at the 2 and the 39-yard TD against Vandy where McElwain wished he had fallen to the ground after making the first down so the Gators could run out the remaining clock.
Davis took his fumble personally, Seider said.
“It was hard on him,” Seider said. “I even called him that night. He’s a prideful kid. I said, ‘When’s the last time you fumbled?’ He’s like, ‘Tenth grade.’ I said, ‘What did you do the next play?’ He said, ‘I came back and scored on a long run.’
“And I said, ‘When was the last time you were caught from behind?’ And he said, ‘I can’t remember.’ I said, ‘Welcome to the SEC. Everybody’s got speed.’ He learned a great deal that day. He’s kind of made amends for it.”
As for the touchdown against Vanderbilt, Seider said the only instructions he gave Davis was to convert the fourth-down play.
“All I told him was, ‘Go get this first down. Let’s put this game away,’ ” Seider said. “I’m sure that Tennessee rep came back into his mind like, ‘I’m not going to be denied. I’m going to score any way possible.’ “
There will be other teachable moments for Davis, likely many more, because his career is just getting started. And what a start it has been.
“It’s way too early (to say how good he can be),” Seider said. “He’s not even scratching the surface yet on how good he can be.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.