Davis could have kissed his hopes goodbye after he re-broke the ankle during his first spring at the University of Arkansas, a spring when the 17-year-old should have been a high school senior.
But no, he really couldn’t.
Pops inspired the young Davis to stick with his plan after that second ankle surgery in 2009, reminding him of the extra hours he spent in the weight room and the classroom, graduating early so he could get a jump start on his college career.
Pops, also known as Warren Morgan, isn’t a blood relative to Davis, though their bond is as tight as a father-son connection, maybe even tighter.
And to be correct, that should be “was” as tight, as in the past tense. See, Morgan, the man who entered Davis’ world when he was in the second grade, and married his mother, Regina Gardner, in 2006, passed away in August 2009 with an advanced case of liver cancer.
The man who treated Davis like a son, who encouraged him when life dealt him hard knocks, who put his arm around him during the good times and the bad, didn’t get to see Davis run crazy the last half of the 2010 season. Morgan was unable to watch Davis, running pain-free, rush for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns to help power the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl, the first Bowl Championship Series bid in school history.
Davis, a national top-200 prospect in 2009 despite his injury-filled prep career, was supposed to enter the 2011 season with the wind at his back and a degree of national acclaim after his big finish. He didn’t kick back on his laurels during the offseason, but suffered a season-ending ankle injury in fall camp. This is another tough break for Davis, after returning to 100 percent and shining as one of the SEC’s top backs.
Davis ran the third-best 40 time (4.29 hand-timed) on a fast Razorbacks team in winter testing, and his bench press of 415 pounds beat all but three Arkansas linemen.
“Knile had a great offseason,” Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton says. “He improved in every category, from weight to speed to bench to power clean to squat to shuttle runs to everything.”
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino points out how Davis showed up at winter testing for the other positions on the team, raising his level as a leader. “You could see how much he cares about his teammates, and that’s a huge step as far as being a leader,” Petrino says.
“I just enjoy football,” says Davis, who added 10 pounds, to reach 230 pounds, in the offseason. “I wanted to see what all the different positions did. When I watched some of the 40s and stuff, I really wanted to see what the times were. I was trying to compete. I was talking a little noise.”
Davis says he’s kept his ego in check after his 1,300-yard season, as Pops would prefer.
“He’s a humble kid,” Horton says. “He’s not an ego guy. Football’s very important to Knile Davis. He loves the game and will come in early and watch video.
“He likes to watch some of the pro backs and he likes to study football. He’s got a lot of maturity about him.”
After re-fracturing his ankle, Davis opened the 2009 season as essentially the fifth tailback on Arkansas’ roster. That Razorbacks team had 1,000-yard rusher Michael Smith in the lead role, though injuries plagued him. Transfer Broderick Green, an in-state product and transfer from USC, wound up as the team’s leading rusher. Behind him were Smith, sophomore Dennis Johnson and the more heavily hyped freshman Ronnie Wingo. Davis rushed for a modest 163 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman, with much of it coming in mop-up duty in a homecoming rout of Eastern Michigan.
Davis suffered another setback in the spring of 2010, breaking his left collarbone — again — during the Razorbacks’ Red-White game.
Dealing with another serious injury and the uphill climb he faced on the tailback depth chart, Davis might have bowed to the pressure.
He didn’t. That wasn’t what Pops would have wanted.
Through four games in 2010, Davis was still behind on the depth chart and had rushed for only 121 yards and one touchdown on 20 attempts. But after the Razorbacks dropped a 65–43 decision at Auburn, a game in which a late Green fumble led to an Auburn touchdown, Davis took the reins at tailback. He never let them go.
Davis rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns the following week in a 38–24 victory over Ole Miss, then produced five 100-yard games the rest of the way to burst onto the national scene.
He outdueled South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore with 110 yards and three touchdowns in a 41–20 Arkansas victory in Columbia, S.C., put up back-to-back 180-yard efforts against UTEP and Mississippi State, then ravaged a vaunted LSU defense for 152 yards and a score as the Razorbacks won their sixth straight to reach the Sugar Bowl.
“If you would have asked me if I would get 1,000 yards before the season, I would have been like, ‘You’re crazy!’” Davis says.
“It doesn’t surprise us that he has run the ball well,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee says. “Knile has always been one of our strongest and most competitive guys, ever since he got here.”
Davis dedicated his 2010 season to Warren, and says he thinks about his stepfather on the field and in the weight room.
“I think about what kind of encouragement he’d be trying to give me,” Davis says. “The point is, he was my stepdad. He didn’t have to be there for me. He didn’t have to do that. And he did anyway.”
Considering Davis’ history of returning from injuries and his dedication to football, he should return for 2012 even more motivated for a big season. Without Davis, Arkansas will likely go with a combination of Ronnie Wingo and Dennis Johnson at running back. Although that duo is talented, neither will likely match Davis’ production.
Losing Davis is a huge blow to Arkansas’ SEC title hopes. The Razorbacks were picked third in the SEC West by Athlon and Davis was predicted to be one of the top 10 players in the conference. Losing Davis is a huge loss, but his track record suggests he will return for 2012 an even better player.