The following is the third in a series of position previews.
As far as Steve Spurrier is concerned, the matter is settled.
For the time being.
As long he continues to perform on and off the field, sophomore Mike Davis will be lined up in the backfield when USC takes its first snap of the season at Mississippi State on Aug. 31.
Davis started his freshman season slowly before erupting for 413 yards over the final four games. He had 111 yards against Clemson – the first 100-yard rushing game of his career – before surpassing that figure with a career high 125 yards on 18 carries against Missouri in the Independence Bowl.
"Right now, Mike Davis is our starting tailback," Spurrier said recently. "He is stronger, faster and really works hard."
After finding out what life in the SEC is all about, Davis has sustained the momentum from the final one-third of the schedule with a superb spring practice and summer conditioning program, displaying a maturity rarely seen in a true sophomore.
"Mike has had a real good off-season," USC running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "He's really become a leader in the weight room and at workouts. He's dedicated himself to taking care of his body. I look forward to him having a great season."
The biggest enemy for Davis is complacency. But his effort and hard work over the last six months is evidence the former Columbia High star is not about to get comfortable after a few good games.
"He has to stay hungry," Gillespie said. "The guys behind him will force him to do that. He has to just continue to want to get better and not let a little success get to his head. He ended (last season) on a pretty good note. He just has to stay focused at the beginning of the season and realize it's a long season and just continue to play. I think the backs we have are going to force each other to get better."
Davis rushed for just 192 yards in his first seven games before turning his season around with a 61-yard performance against Tennessee that propelled him toward the superb conclusion.
"Mike was thrown into the fire and he responded like any true freshman," Gillespie said. "He was trying to do things that were effective on the high school level. Toward the middle part of the season he began to realize those four and five run yards were just as good as a 40- or 50-yard run. He started to become more of a downhill runner and getting behind his pads. That's something we emphasize for all of our backs."
After totaling 666 yards as a freshman, can Davis reach the magical 1,000-yard figure in 2006? Gillespie thinks he can as long as others on offense fulfill their responsibilities as well.
"I think our offensive line is a more mature group and they understand our blocking schemes and concepts," Gillespie said. "The coaching staff realizes the running game is going to be a big part of our offense. We're going to be a pretty good running team. That's something we can hang our hat on. It's going to open up our offense."
While Davis is the current favorite to become the starter at running back, you can be sure Cory Boyd will not surrender that role without a heated battle in fall camp.
Boyd returns to action after sitting out the entire 2005 season due to a suspension.
It didn't take Boyd – who rushed for 309 yards and caught 35 passes in 2004 – long to impress the USC coaches with his multiple skills.
He broke off a 71-yard touchdown run in the Garnet and Black game.
"Cory is probably one of the most talented guys I have ever been around," Gillespie said. "With his size and speed, he's a dangerous weapon. He's a guy that can take over a game with one play. He's a leader the guys can respond to. It's going to be great to have him as part of the offense."
A much-needed dimension Boyd will bring to the Gamecock offense is the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. USC's top three running backs combined for 37 receptions last season, just two more than Boyd had by himself in 2004.
If Boyd is able to fill that void, it will force teams to think twice before double-teaming USC's wide receivers – especially Sidney Rice - on the outside.
"The running backs have to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield," Gillespie said. "I think Blake (Mitchell) did a good job locating the running backs in the spring. We all know what a great receiver Sidney is. He's going to get double-teamed. The running backs have to take some of the pressure off Sidney and Kenny McKinley. That way we can get the backs in the open field and force the defenders to come up a little bit and get the 1-on-1 coverage on Sidney again. It's definitely going to open up our offense."
Spurrier hinted throughout the spring that he will try to create formations that will allow Davis and Boyd to be on the field at the same time.
"We're finding ways to get our best athletes on the field," Gillespie said. "With his offensive mind, Coach Spurrier will find ways to take advantage of our speed. I think it will be a good situation. We want to find ways to get those guys in the game at the same time."
Bobby Wallace caused a sensation in fall camp last year with his outstanding speed and quickness. But once the season started he struggled to find space. He concluded the regular season, though, with a season-high 51 yards on just six carries against Clemson after replacing the injured Davis.
Gillespie's mission is to get Wallace, a native of Conway, S.C., more touches this season. But, as he noted, Wallace contributes in other ways too.
"Bobby is one of our best blocking backs," Gillespie said. "He's probably our strongest back even though he's the smallest. Bobby is our wild card. He can catch the ball very well out of the backfield. He's a scat back who can make people miss. We don't expect him to run over guys. When the hole closes up he can bounce outside. We'll work Bobby into the rotation. He's definitely going to get some playing time."
After nearly transferring to a I-AA school in the Pacific Northwest closer to his Vancouver, Wa., home following spring practice, redshirt freshman Taylor Rank is back on board. He appeared briefly in the Georgia game last season before suffering an ankle injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Rank, who rushed for 2,014 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior, became frustrated with his situation as he tried to adjust to the hyper-competitive atmosphere of the SEC.
"Taylor has refocused," Gillespie said. "After he and his family sat down and talked with Coach Spurrier I think he rededicated himself. He's up to about 210 pounds so he's going to be one of our bigger backs. He just has to understand that he's going to have to compete with these guys and that he's going to have to earn it. When his opportunity comes he has to take advantage of it."
Before suffering a torn Achilles tendon that ended his season, Syvelle Newton showed in the Vanderbilt game that he's quite capable of being a standout running back in addition to his outstanding skills at quarterback and wide receiver.
Newton rushed 21 times last season for 150 yards, an average of 7.1 yards per carry. He rushed 15 times for 80 yards in the 35-28 victory over Vanderbilt.
"We're going to use him wherever we can," Gillespie said. "We're going to try to create mismatches for him. He's going to line up in several spots. He's an exciting player to watch."
Don't look for Emanuel Cook to be much of a factor at running back this season. Cook rushed for over 2,000 yards at Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High School last season and was the Class 6A Player of the Year in the Sunshine State.
But he will start his freshman campaign on the defensive side of the ball.
"Emanuel can help us on both sides of the ball. But he's going to start out on defense and see if he can help us over there," Gillespie said. "If he gets over there and dominates like we think he can, he'll stay there."
After unexpectedly losing Demetris Summers and Boyd prior to the start of the 2005 season, the USC running game struggled to get out of the blocks as Davis and Wallace adjusted to the college game and the performance of the offensive line fell below expectations.
One year later, the Gamecocks have made a commitment to become a much stronger running team in Spurrier's second season as head coach.
"We feel like we took a step forward in the spring," Gillespie said. "Now we just have to carry it over. The guys will have to respond. We have to establish the run to open up our entire offense. I feel we have a chance to be a lot better running team this year."
PROBABLE STARTER: Mike Davis.
RESERVES: Cory Boyd, Bobby Wallace, Taylor Rank, Syvelle Newton.
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