Olin Buchanan Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Anyone caught off-guard by Arkansas tailback Knile Davis' sudden surge from unknown to All-American shouldn't feel too bad.
Davis didn't anticipate it, either.
"Last year was just as surprising to me as it was to you," says Davis, who is getting ready to enter his junior season. "At the beginning of the year, we had four good running backs sharing time. I wasn't thinking a lot about a 1,000-yard rushing year because you're sharing the ball and playing in the SEC. College football was still kind of new to me. I'd never taken the starting spot. It just surprised me."
Arkansas went 10-3 last season, including a Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State, but star quarterback Ryan Mallett has left for the NFL. Still, don't overlook the Razorbacks this season. The Hogs lost Mallett, but they still have a sledgehammer -- the 6-foot, 230-pound Davis, a superb blend of strength, power and speed.
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino has a reputation for relying on a wide-open passing game, but Davis could become the focal point on the Razorbacks' offense in 2011.
Each of Petrino's teams at Arkansas and Louisville has ranked among the nation's top 30 in passing offense. Five of his past six teams have ranked among the nation's top 13 in passing. The one that didn't was in 2008, Petrino's first year at Arkansas, when the Hogs were 23rd in passing.
But while Petrino likes to put the ball in the air, history shows he'll utilize talented running backs when he has them. His 2004 Louisville team was eighth in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 250 rushing yards per game. Indeed, three of Petrino's four teams at Louisville ranked 12th or better in rushing offense.
"I knew about his coaching career at Louisville with Michael Bush," Davis says. "That's one of his big recruiting tools to get running backs. He talked about Michael Bush and the kind of seasons he had."
who's that guy?
Here's a list of the nation's most underrated RBs.
1. Montel Harris, Boston College: Even though opposing defenses haven't had to worry about BC's horrible passing game, Harris has rushed for 2,700 yards and 22 TDs in the past two seasons. He has received all-conference recognition, but he isn't well-known outside the ACC.
3. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA: The Bruins' passing game is atrocious. Their offensive line is substandard. Yet Franklin managed to churn out 1,127 rushing yards in 2010 -- the first Bruins player to reach four digits since 2006. He has breakaway ability, as evidenced by a 59-yard TD run against USC, and had five 100-yard games last season. If the Bruins can provide offensive help, he could post some serious stats.
4. Rodney Stewart, Colorado: The diminutive Stewart (5 feet 6/175 pounds) couldn't even get second-team All-Big 12 mention in 2010 even though he rushed for 1,318 yards. Stewart, a senior, has been a productive starter since his freshman season, but he has had injury issues. Last season, he posted six 100-yard games and also had 29 receptions.
5. Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky: Rainey produced the fifth-highest rushing output (1,649 yards) in the nation last season despite playing for a dreadful team that finished 2-10 and ranked 98th in the country in total offense. In short, Rainey is the Hilltoppers' offense. Skeptics may dismiss him for playing bad Sun Belt Conference defenses, but he rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown against Nebraska and 184 and two TDs against Kentucky. In four games against Big Six foes last season, he rushed for 508 yards and five scores. Rainey had nine 100-yard games last season, when he also had 29 receptions and threw a TD pass.
Bush, who rushed for 1,143 yards in 2005, was hyped as a Heisman candidate in 2006 before breaking his right tibia in the season opener.
Although he's overshadowed nationally by Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and Oregon running back LaMichael James, among others, Davis -- a native Texan like Luck and James -- could emerge as a Heisman contender this season. Some Arkansas fans already have started a "Knile Davis for Heisman" campaign on Facebook.
Davis certainly looks prepared for a strong season. During offseason testing, Davis was timed at 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash and bench-pressed 415 pounds. Both were among the top five on the team. But his coach is impressed for other reasons.
"What I like so much is that he wants to take over the leadership role," Petrino said earlier this spring. "When we tested in the weight room, he was there for every group. Two groups ahead of him, he was there helping out. And then two groups after he went, he was still there. He stayed the entire time.
"That means a lot to me. That shows he's ready. He cares, and he knows he needs everybody around him."
Davis definitely proved he was ready to ascend to stardom last season, when he led all SEC running backs with 1,342 rushing yards. That number is even more impressive considering Davis had only 121 rushing yards in September, when he was sharing carries with Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo and Broderick Green.
Davis didn't get double-digit carries until the fifth game, when he gained 82 yards on 10 attempts in a victory over Texas A&M. Davis rushed for 1,028 yards in the second half of the season and finished the year with a gaudy 6.48 yards-per-carry average despite facing some of the top rushing defenses in the nation.
He averaged 7.0 yards on six carries against Alabama (10th in the nation in run defense). He averaged 6.5 yards on 14 carries against Auburn (ninth). He rushed for 110 yards against South Carolina (12th), 187 against Mississippi State (15th), 152 against LSU (42nd) and 139 in the Sugar Bowl against Ohio State (third).
"I wouldn't say I felt like I couldn't be stopped, but I did feel like I had momentum," Davis says. "When you get more carries, you get a feel for the game. At the beginning of the season, I'd get four carries here and five there and I couldn't get the feel.
"Once I got more carries, I guess I did get in a groove down the stretch."
Is it a stretch to expect him to stay in the groove this fall?
A year ago defenses were preoccupied with Mallett and Arkansas' receivers, which opened up opportunities for the running game. In addition, both starting offensive tackles from last season's team -- DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez -- completed their eligibility. And Davis won't be an unknown quantity, which he was for at least part of last season.
Still, Davis remains confident in himself and in the Razorbacks. He believes Tyler Wilson, who passed for 332 yards when pressed into emergency duty against Auburn, can be an effective quarterback. Davis believes there are adequate replacements at tackle, where sophomore Anthony Oden, heralded freshman Brey Cook, junior college transfer Jason Peacock and senior Grant Freeman will battle for the two starting jobs.
"I do think we can be as good as last year, if not better," Davis says. "Mallett is gone and that's a big missing piece, but Tyler can be just as good. I feel like we have two guys replacing the tackles that are good. I don't think that's an issue. They will be all right."
If Davis gets just a little bit of room to run, Arkansas will be all right, too.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.