South Carolina running backs coach Robert Gillespie has a comfort level with senior Mike Davis, which is why the Columbia High graduate remains USC's No. 1 running back today despite sitting out part of spring practice with a hamstring injury.
But Davis is just one of a group of running backs that could see significant carries in 2008, especially if the quarterbacks continue to struggle throwing the ball.
Davis, who had 518 rushing yards on 114 carries in 2007, enters the 2008 season with 1,658 career yards and 16 touchdowns in three seasons. He's averaging 4.6 yards per carry and 46.1 yards per game in his career.
"I thought Mike had a productive spring," Gillespie said. "He fought through some injuries he had early in camp. He was able to come back and try to build on last season when he ended slowly. He's trying to get back into the leadership role and fine tune some things."
As the coaching staff's confidence in Cory Boyd grew last season, Davis's production fell considerably. He carried the ball a total of just 35 times in the final six games, an average of 5.8 rushes per game.
He had only four carries in the final two games compared to 36 for Boyd, a seventh-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Gillespie doesn't see that scenario happening ago in 2008 with Davis' experience and maturity.
"Mike has been in this offense for four years," Gillespie said. "So, he understands the offense and the speed of the game. He's able to make the adjustments on the go and play a lot faster than he really is. He understands the offense from a pass protection standpoint and running the ball. We shouldn't miss a beat mentally after losing Cory. Right now, Mike is clearly our No. 1 guy."
After carrying the ball just six times for 20 yards last season, sophomore Brian Maddox showed this spring he's ready to become a significant contributor in 2008. He rushed for a game-high 90 yards in the spring game.
"I think Brian is definitely pushing Mike to get better because Mike understands how good Brian can be," Gillespie said. "Those guys are going to challenge each other. Mike is more mature because he's been in the big games. He understands what it's like. Brian hasn't been in those games, but he'll get his chance. He has a chance to be just as good as Mike or at least close the gap."
With Davis missing several practices due to injury, Gillespie was looking for Maddox to step up and shoulder the load. The Anderson, S.C. native displayed significant improvement in his blocking skills.
Maddox will be counted on for at least one game this season when Davis must sit out for excessive absences from class last fall semester.
"Brian Maddox really took advantage of his opportunity," Gillespie said. "This spring was really our first chance to evaluate him and see what he could do. I think he got better as the spring went along and he ended with a good spring game. Is he ready? I hope so. He has the whole summer to prepare and get stronger."
Eric Baker, who spent the fall semester at Fork Union Military Academy, signed with USC on the same day Maddox did in February of 2007.
Gillespie says Baker brings a different skill set to the backfield. But he still needs to learn the pass protection schemes and picking up blitzes.
"Eric is going to be a good running back, he just has a ways to go," Gillespie said. "We don't want to put him in a situation he can't handle. He wants to do well. He just has to pick up his assignments in pass protection. It's just the little things a high school back has to transition to."
A graduate of Edward White High School in Jacksonville, Baker led the Sunshine State in rushing with 1,703 yards during his senior season in 2006, so he's proven he can run with the football.
"Eric is a natural runner," Gillespie said. "He can from a Wing-T offense in high school where everything was downhill and run, run, run. He needs to gain a little weight and get stronger in the weight room. Those things will come this summer. He has the potential to be a very good back. He's a little different from the other guys."
Depending on how much Baker improves over the summer, the possibility remains he could redshirt in 2008, Gillespie said.
"It's not a big need to get him ready," Gillespie said. "Right now, we have the luxury of having a senior who's been here four years and another guy in Brian Maddox that's ready to play. So, we're not forced to rush him."
With the start of the 2008 season less than four months away, the veteran duo of Bobby Wallace and Taylor Rank are well behind the top three running backs on the depth chart.
Wallace was prohibited from practicing during the week while he attended academic counseling sessions in order to try to stay academically eligible for the fall.
With each missed practice, Wallace fell further and further behind the top three, while his progress stagnated. But it hardly showed in the spring game when he totaled 51 yards on five carries, an average of 10.2 yards every time he touched the football.
"Bobby works hard on the football field and does everything you want in the weight room," Gillespie said. "He's a smart kid. But he just hasn't taken care of his responsibilities off the field. Everything runs together.
"What a player does off the field reflects on the field in practice. It's hard to reward a kid who doesn't do everything he's supposed to do when you have four or five other kids busting their butts and doing what they're supposed to do. Bobby has the potential to help the offense because he's different from the other guys."
Rank has been nearly invisible since rushing for a career-high 101 yards against Florida Atlantic in 2006. He had just two rushes for five yards in 2007. Most of his action has come on special teams.
With several running backs ahead of him, Rank's opportunities to carry the football this upcoming season appear slim.
"Taylor works hard and does the right things, but we have guys that are a little more athletic than him," Gillespie said. "If something happens, he can go in because he knows the system. Right now, he's behind the guys with more experience and who can do things that he can't do."
Kenny Miles, a record-breaking running back from Brookwood High School in Lawrenceville, Ga. will join the program when the second session of summer school begins in early July.
Gillespie said the best-case scenario would be to redshirt either Baker or Miles in 2008.
"We'll see what he can do (in the fall)," Gillespie said. "Right now, he's a little behind Eric because he came in early. But if Kenny comes in and picks up the system and does some things those other guys can't do and can help us on special teams, he'll play. I would like to redshirt Kenny or Eric to get some separation."
By the end of the spring, the coaching staff determined fullback Patrick DiMarco had to be on the field more. As a result, they're considering moving the sophomore to tight end on some occasions to get him more snaps.
"Patrick is the starting fullback in our offense," Gillespie said. "Whenever we come out and go with a two-back look and we have a fullback, DiMarco will play."
When DiMarco is at tight end, former walk-on Bryan Kingrey and converted linebacker Yvan Banag will handle the fullback duties.
FALL 2008 OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD ROSTER:
Eric Baker (RB)
Yvan Banag (FB)
Mike Davis (RB)**
Patrick DiMarco (FB)
Bryan Kingrey (FB)
Kenny Miles (RB)
Brian Maddox (RB)
Taylor Rank (RB)
Bobby Wallace (RB)
** Suspended For 1 Game In 2008 Season
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