This is the sixth in an eight-part, position-by-position series previewing the 2012 Razorbacks. Up next: Linebackers
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Knile Davis’ long wait for live contact may finally end in Razorback Stadium today.
Coach John L. Smith said Thursday he anticipated Davis participating in the Razorbacks final preseason scrimmage — a mock game — in preparation for the season opener against Jacksonville State on Sept. 1.
It would signal the first time Davis has been tackled since suffering the season-ending fractured ankle during Arkansas’ first preseason scrimmage last August.
Smith said he didn’t know how much work Davis would receive during the mock game, but said the scrimmage would last no longer than 40 plays. So he said the Razorbacks are planning to see what the scrimmage dictates for Davis.
“It’s a deal like if he takes the first handoff and breaks three tackles and scores, then that’s enough — which you’d like to see,” Smith said. “That’s going to be something that we’ll kind of play by ear and let Knile kind of determine a little of that.”
It’s another significant step in Davis’ year-long recovery from the injury. The running back has participated in every portion of practice except for live tackling work this preseason. He watched the first two scrimmages from the sideline with Arkansas explaining it wanted to make sure Davis made it to game day healthy.
But running backs coach Tim Horton said Davis still had been through plenty.
“Has he been taken to the ground? No,” Horton said before Smith’s decision to scrimmage Davis. “But he’s been hit on and banged on. He was banged on (Tuesday) and was banged on (Monday) and did go to the ground some. But it wasn’t a purposeful tackle, you know?
“He has been hit on and — you know — with his history we’ve just got to be smart.”
The caution is understandable.
Davis has suffered three broken ankles and two broken collarbones since his junior year in high school. The latest was the fractured ankle last August, which occurred when an Arkansas lineman fell on top of Davis during the first preseason scrimmage.
Each of Davis’ injuries at Arkansas — which include two broken ankles and a broken collarbone — all occurred during scrimmages.
But Davis has been eager to get the first hit out of the way, believing he was ready for it as far back as last spring. The running back said earlier this preseason he understood Arkansas’ decision to hold off on live tackling, though.
“I’m just waiting on the go-ahead,” Knile Davis said. “Whenever he tells me I can go in I’m going to go. Whether that be in practice or the first game. … The day is going to come. I’m just being patient and I’m going to go get it when it’s time.”
Smith indicated Thursday night he had planned to hold Davis out of tonight’s mock game as well, but the running back helped convince him otherwise.
“My intent after we get talking and watching and practicing and thinking every night, I finally came up with a deal that ‘I’m not going to play him (until the game),” Smith said. “And then he vetoed me. And that’s perfectly honest.”
The debate to scrimmage Davis or hold him out has been one of the prominent topics of discussion during preseason practices.
It began before workouts began when Smith said Arkansas needed Davis to get in some tackling work to prepare for the season. Then he appeared to change his mind. Either way, Davis continues to impress the Razorbacks with his work on the field.
Davis has shown few signs of rust in sprinting through holes during non-tackling run drills. He has wrestled with defenders during pass protection drills. Davis hasn’t been shy about butting heads with linebackers at the line of scrimmage, either, sending Tenarius Wright to the sidelines with a collision two weeks ago.
“I know when I’m watching practice and seeing him hit the hole he’s hitting it fast and it looks different than some of the other guys hit it,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said earlier this week. “He’s fine. That’s not the deal. We just want to get him to the game and use every bit of his ability when game time comes.”
A healthy Davis should give Arkansas’ offense an added dimension. While Dennis Johnson performed well as the primary ball carrier last year, Davis became one of the SEC’s best with his 1,322 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010.
He is considered a Heisman Trophy contender even though his last carry came in the loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. Davis considered entering the 2012 NFL Draft and said he received a second- to third-round grade from the advisory committee. He opted to join Wilson in returning to Arkansas for one more year.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said earlier this week Davis remains on course to play well in 2012 even though he hadn’t been tackled throughout preseason camp.
It appears that will end during the mock game, though. Teammate Alfred Davis said earlier this week the running back would handle it well no matter when it occurred.
“He’s been getting tackled all his life,” Alfred Davis said. “I mean, it’s been a while, and yeah, the first five or six of them are going to probably hurt.
“But he’s still a football player at the end of the day.”
A closer look at … RUNNING BACKS
Best of the bunch: Knile Davis – The Razorbacks have title hopes largely because of Davis, who provides an element to the offense Arkansas sorely missed last year. His size, speed, strength and vision led to an enormous 2010 season, something Arkansas is confident he can produce again. The ongoing wait for the first tackle should end today. It’s the last step in Davis’ return from last year’s injury.
Watch out for: Jonathan Williams — It’s not clear if the freshman will play in 2012, but Williams has proved worthy of consideration during camp. Williams’ best day came in the Fan Day scrimmage, when he rushed for 115 yards and scored three touchdowns. The Razorbacks would like to redshirt Williams if possible, but will make sure he’s ready if there are injuries. He’s capable of making an impact, too.
Biggest strength: Arkansas carries one of the deepest and most experienced backfields in the nation into 2012 with three seniors (Davis, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo) at tailback and another senior (Kiero Small) at fullback. The four have seen it all in their careers and want to lead the way one final time this fall.
Biggest question: Can the group stay healthy and intact? That has been the problem the past two seasons with Johnson (2010) and Davis (2011) sidelined because of significant injuries. Arkansas has proven it can press on with a runner down, but there’s no doubt three healthy backs is better than two or one.
Projected starters: Running back — Knile Davis, Sr.; Fullback — Kiero Small, Sr.
Other contributors: Running Back — Dennis Johnson, Sr.; Ronnie Wingo, Sr.; Kody Walker, So.; Jonathan Williams, Fr.; Fullback — Kody Walker, So.; Morgan Linton, So.
That figures: 588 — Number of days since Arkansas played Ohio State in the 2011 Sugar Bowl. It was the last time running back Knile Davis played in game. The streak is on schedule to end at 596 days, when Arkansas plays Jacksonville State on Sept. 1.
Quotable: “It’s going to be an awesome trio. It’s a trio that we always wanted that we never could get. When we had the trio at first, I was hurt. Then the trio could’ve been last year and Knile got hurt. So hopefully Wingo doesn’t get hurt this year so we can do the trio.” — Dennis Johnson on he, Davis and Wingo being healthy.