Junior tailback Mike Davis entered spring practice with just one notable weakness. And after 15 practices, he may have eliminated it.
Davis got a break this spring after being banged up down the stretch last fall. The Atlanta, Ga., native was limited in contact drills, and he spent more time studying film and mentoring younger tailbacks than he did with a ball in his hands.
This spring was "relaxing," Davis said after the Garnet and Black Spring Game, where he rushed just twice for 13 yards. But the 5-foot-9, 216-pounder who rushed for 1,183 yards last season did have at least one major issue to work on.
"Not fumbling," replied USC head coach Steve Spurrier recently when asked what Davis could improve on. "Oh, you're not supposed to say that, are you? Ball security, I'm sorry. Ball security. That's what he needs to concentrate on."
Spurrier went on to note two games where Davis had trouble hanging on to the football. One was South Carolina's 27-24 victory over Missouri last fall, where Davis fumbled twice in Missouri territory - including one on the Tigers' two-yard line.
The other was USC's 28-25 victory over UCF, where Davis - looking for his fourth touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter - coughed up the ball on the three-yard line. Spurrier still reminds Davis of the mistake.
"He never lets that go," Davis said with a grin.
The Gamecocks escaped both games with three-point victories, but Spurrier knows how close USC could have come to finishing last season 9-4.
"Somehow or another, we came back to win those games," Spurrier said. "That's going to cost you. You keep fumbling on the two-yard line on first down, you're going to come out a loser someday. We escaped those.
"But Mike knows that. He knows that. And he's a very good runner, a powerful runner - just (needs) a little extra ball security."
Davis said he worked hard to limit that weakness this spring, and that he didn't fumble a single time in any of USC's 15 practices.
Rushing for more than 100 yards in seven games and earning second-team All-SEC honors in his first season as the starter last year hasn't affected Davis' work ethic, his teammates say.
"I think he can be a great player, but he knows that, and that's why he's working," USC QB Dylan Thompson said of Davis. "Any time, I think, at any position, you get satisfied, you don't get near as good as you could. And he's done a good job this spring, even though he wasn't getting a lot of reps, just focusing."
Taking mostly mental reps this spring helped Davis develop a better understanding of how to break down opposing defenses, Thompson said.
"In practice, Mike was really sharp. He's gotten a lot smarter," Thompson said, adding that he and Davis took turns dissecting the defense from the sideline at the spring game. "I'm really proud of him for the work that he's put in."
But Davis, who also caught 34 passes for 352 yards last season, is far from USC's only weapon in the backfield. Behind him in the depth chart are redshirt juniors Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson and redshirt freshman David Williams. All three could see significant playing time next fall.
Wilds has totaled 962 yards and eight touchdowns in 17 games as a Gamecock, Carson has proven himself a serviceable third option and Williams - who rushed for two touchdowns in the spring game - is one of the team's most explosive players.
Led by Davis, the group spearheaded a USC rushing attack that picked up 2,580 yards on the ground last season - the best rushing output of any South Carolina team since Spurrier arrived in 2005.
With the meat of the running backs corps - and four of the team's starting five offensive linemen returning for next season, USC appears poised for an impressive season on the ground.
"Mike's ready to have a big year," Spurrier said. "And Brandon Wilds is ready. Shon should be back (from injuring his shoulder in the spring game), and David Williams had some nice runs."
A RISING STAR. Redshirt freshman David Williams is listed as USC's fourth-string tailback, but could become a household name this season.
Williams missed the last two weeks of spring practice with a nagging hamstring injury, but recovered just in time to play in the spring game. In his first action since the injury, Williams took seven carries for 35 yards and caught two passes for 18 yards.
He also rushed for two touchdowns in his first game-like situation since enrolling at USC last fall.
"I didn't know what to expect when I came out here," said Williams. "I was thinking about my hamstring the whole time before it started, but it felt good to get out there and score some touchdowns even though my hamstring had been bothering me."
Spurrier said after the spring game he expects Williams to be "very good" for South Carolina. Williams said he learned a lot in his first season at USC, and that now he's ready to try to contribute next season.
"I feel good," said Williams, a former four-star Philadelphia, Pa., product. "I feel like if I keep coming out and doing what I've been doing all spring, hopefully I can touch the field."
Key to Williams' growth has been the mentoring he's received from Davis. While practicing in a limited role this spring, Davis had plenty of time to share his experience with Williams, teaching him how to recognize how defenses will attack him on any given play.
"He just told me to be more patient," Williams said. "He just said, 'Be confident,' because I used to be second-guessing myself when I was out there. But thanks to the redshirt year, I've been able to get in the playbook, understand and just be confident when I'm out there running plays."
With three experienced backs ahead of him in the depth chart, Williams is already preparing to make the most of whatever chances he gets next season.
"I just got to take advantage of it and take advantage of the little bit of carries I may get if I do get carries."
INJURY UPDATE. Carson "cracked" his shoulder while being tackled in the spring game Saturday, Spurrier said after the game. The redshirt junior should be back before the season opener against Texas A&M on Aug. 28, Spurrier said.
"He's got some time, and hopefully he'll be ready to go," Spurrier said. "He was having an excellent spring."
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