Knile Davis knew somebody was probably going to emerge from Arkansas’ crowded backfield.
But even he had a hard time envisioning back in September one of the Hogs’ backs breaking out and rushing for 1,000 yards, especially with how poorly Arkansas ran the ball in the second half of that bitter home loss to Alabama.
“Early in the season, everybody was questioning our running game, whether it was the offensive line, the running backs or the coaches,” Davis said. “It was running back by committee, and we just weren’t getting it done.”
But following a 65-43 loss to Auburn on Oct. 16, something changed.
That something was Davis, who took matters into his own hands and blossomed into the SEC’s most productive running back during the second half of the season.
It’s a big reason Arkansas finds itself in its first BCS bowl game, as the Hogs prepare to face Ohio State on Tuesday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Davis enters that contest with 1,183 rushing yards, piling up 889 of those yards in his last six games. It’s no coincidence that the Hogs won all six of those games. Davis rushed for 100 yards in five of the six and served notice that he's as talented as any runner in the league.
“When [Ryan] Mallett went down in the Auburn game and our No. 1 receiver, Greg Childs, went down for the season two weeks later, I felt like we were put in a jam and had to find something else,” said Davis, a 6-foot, 220-pound sophomore.
“When that happened, coach [Bobby Petrino] went to the running game and we found out, ‘Hey, maybe we do have a legitimate running game.’ Ever since then, with Mallett back, we’ve been clicking and have kept defenses guessing.”
Arkansas’ offense has personified balance this season. The Hogs are the only team in the country with a 3,000-yard passer (Mallett), a 1,000-yard rusher (Davis) and five 500-yard receivers (Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, Cobi Hamilton, D.J. Williams and Childs).
“When one’s not working, you can always go to the other,” Davis said. “But the whole key to it has been our offensive line. They’ve been together all 12 games this year, and to have that kind of chemistry opens up a lot of things for you on offense.”
Davis hasn’t taken anything for granted this season.
He knows how hard he’s worked to get to this point, what all he’s had to overcome and how much others have sacrificed for him.
Injuries plagued his high school career. He broke his collarbone his junior year of high school and then broke his ankle as a senior. Soon after arriving at Arkansas, he broke that same ankle. And then this past spring, he broke his collarbone again.
“I remember wondering in high school what it would be like to stay healthy for an entire season,” Davis said. “I never got to play a whole season. I never got to play in the All-American games. The way I look at it, there’s still a lot more out there.
“Now, I want to see what I can do for a whole season when the cameras are on me and I’m being game-planned against. Can I do this for a whole season, stay healthy and be effective? I still have a lot to prove as a football player, and so does this team. There’s always something else. I’m never satisfied.”
Davis credits his late stepfather, Warren Morgan, for keeping him grounded, and most importantly, for keeping him focused during some of the tough times with all the injuries.
Morgan died last summer after a bout with cancer.
“He did a lot for me and was always there for me, even though he was just my stepfather,” Davis said. “He kept me going a lot of times, and this season is for him.”
One of the things that has separated Davis this season is his ability to get the tough yards as well as break the long ones.
He’s also been resilient.
In the double-overtime win at Mississippi State the next to last week of the regular season, Davis lost his first two fumbles of the season. But he came back to cap an otherwise stellar night with a game-winning 7-yard touchdown catch. He finished that game with a career-high 187 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s not what happens to you that’s important,” Davis said. “It’s how you respond to what happens to you.”
Well, Davis has responded time and time again.
His stepdad would be proud.