COLUMBIA - South Carolina's Mike Davis is heading into an NFL Draft brimming with quality running backs, and that glut of available talent could play a role in determining where the Gamecocks star is selected.
Davis, the ninth-leading rusher in South Carolina history, announced Dec. 25 that he would leave school after his junior season and apply for the NFL Draft. He enters a crowded field of draft-eligible running backs, and that surplus could lead to some dropping to rounds lower than originally projected.
"The thing about this year's running back group is, it's loaded," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. "It's just so deep. And so you wonder where some of these running backs who would normally go second, third round, where they're going to wind up falling."
Prior to this past season, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projected Davis as the No. 4 running back among underclassmen, and the No. 7 prospect overall. But nagging injuries and being benched most of one game due to fumbles limited him to 982 yards as a junior - fewer than the 1,183 he gained as a sophomore, and 18 short of making Davis the school's first rusher to record consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since George Rogers from 1978-80.
But Davis still had his moments, such as a game at Kentucky where he ran for a career-best 183 yards on 23 carries. "He struggled this year with some injuries," McShay said, "but he's been a really good player."
No running back has gone in the first round in either of the past two years, and last year it took until the 54th pick for one to be chosen - the latest ever for the position. That shouldn't be the case this season, not with a deep group McShay said is headlined by Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin, Todd Gurley of Georgia, Tevin Coleman of Indiana, Duke Johnson of Miami and Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska.
Beyond that, there's T.J Yeldon of Alabama, Jay Ajayi of Boise State, Davis, David Cobb of Minnesota, Jeremy Langford of Michigan State, Matt Jones of Florida and Cameron Artis-Payne of Auburn. When it comes to running backs in the 2015 draft, it's a buyer's market.
"That list right there is 12 deep of running backs that you could argue belong in the first three to four rounds, and we haven't seen any running backs go in the first two rounds the last two years," McShay said. "So I just wonder how many of those guys are going to really, legitimately wind up going in the second-, third-round range, or if a bunch of them will fall."
The first South Carolina player likely to be taken in the April 30 draft is offensive lineman A.J. Cann, who has been projected by some as a late first-round pick, but whom McShay grades as an early second-round selection. The first Palmetto State player taken is likely to be Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley, whom McShay sees as a possibility for the Atlanta Falcons at No. 8.
McShay said Beasley is "much smaller" than other defensive end options such as Missouri's Shane Ray and Florida's Dante Fowler, and "is more of an outside linebacker fit. But he can provide a pass rush, and he's been just insanely productive over the last couple of years."