COLUMBIA — He had just ripped off a 43-yard run in the third quarter against Mississippi State. So impressive, yet so ordinary.
6.37 yards per carry
1,384 yards from scrimmage
This is what South Carolina tailback Mike Davis does, after all. Nobody in the SEC has more 40-yard runs this season than Davis’ five. So, the long third-quarter run Saturday that pushed Davis over the 1,000-yard mark this season was a highlight — but not the highlight.
It’s what came on the next snap — an off-balance, 30-yard catch down the right sideline — that truly amazed.
“I probably twisted my body around, like, twice, came down on my shoulder hard,” Davis said after USC’s 34-16 win. “I’d say I was (more impressed) with the catch.”
In two consecutive plays Saturday, Davis displayed why he’ll likely be on the short list of Heisman Trophy candidates before the 2014 season. The SEC’s leading rusher is more than just a rusher. He’s a complete halfback, adding 29 catches and 326 yards to his 1,058 rushing yards through nine games.
Davis’ skillset is not unique. However, USC coach Steve Spurrier had no problem mixing his sophomore with the elite Sunday afternoon.
“Yeah, Marcus could do all that,” Spurrier said of former USC tailback Marcus Lattimore, who himself could have been a Heisman finalist had he stayed healthy during his career. “Marcus was an excellent receiver coming out of the backfield. He caught that similar play down the sideline several times also.”
During Davis’ rise to stardom this season, Spurrier has maintained reverent tones when regarding Lattimore’s legacy. He has good reason. Lattimore was an ideal ambassador for the Gamecocks’ football program. So, each time one of Davis’ feats is mentioned, it’s no surprise when Spurrier reminds that Lattimore accomplished similar milestones.
Only, in reality, Davis may do things Lattimore never did.
Davis is only 139 yards from Lattimore’s best rushing season, a 1,197-yard mark as a freshman in 2010. He’s averaging 1.56 more yards per carry than Lattimore did that season.
“Yeah, I would love to surpass it, but I didn’t target that,” Davis said. “I didn’t even know I was close to it, but I guess, since you just brought it to my attention, of course I’m going to go at it.”
It’s impossible to overemphasize the value Davis’ production has had on USC’s offense this season. The sophomore is on pace for 1,999 yards from scrimmage, easily leading the SEC. He has reached 130 yards from scrimmage in eight straight games, the only SEC player to do that this season.
On Saturday, Spurrier said his team had “one good drive.” South Carolina marched 86 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Davis accounted for 82 of those yards, including his two highlight reel-worthy plays.
“He’s a very good back,” Spurrier said. “There’s no question about that.”
Running backs coach Everette Sands isn’t satisfied with his young star. He wants Davis to take the “very good” and turn it into great.
When asked last week what Davis can do better, Sands blurted out two words: ball security. Davis has lost three fumbles this season, two at Missouri. On the surface, it seems like the only blemish in Davis’ game.
Sands said there are weaknesses, however subtly. He’s stressed for Davis to “trust himself,” take advantage of matchups when opportunities arrive.
“A lot of backs, when it’s a little cloudy, say, ‘I’m not going to go that way. I’m going to go the other way.’ They end up putting themselves in a worse situation,” Sands said last week, after Davis was held to a season-low 51 rushing yards against Mizzou. “So, sometimes when it’s a little cloudy, you have to go on ahead and say, ‘Hey, it’s you and me one-on-one.’
“I think he left a couple yards on the field. Just seeing the crease and getting the crease — even though there may be somebody there — and saying,’Hey, I’m going to go one-on-one with this linebacker.’ He does a great job, but there’s some little things that I think he can improve on.”
Still room to grow after becoming one of the nation’s top running backs. It’s a scary thought for any defense, during the final four weeks of this season and beyond.
Follow South Carolina beat writer Ryan Wood on Twitter @rwood_SC.