Keith Niebuhr is trying very hard not to compare Mike Davis to Emmitt Smith.
Niebuhr is a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. He knows how it sounds comparing a high school player to an NFL Hall of Famer with more than 18,000 professional rushing yards, but it’s the most apt comparison that comes to mind.
“He is kind of like a modern Emmitt Smith,” Niebhuhr said. “If you can visualize what Emmitt Smith was probably like in high school, it’s what this guy is — low center of gravity, very compact build, sneaky quick, not a burner, great vision, great feet, difficult to tackle.”
Davis signed a scholarship agreement on Feb. 1 to play football for South Carolina, and recruiting analysts considered it a coup. He was rated a four-star prospect (out of five) by every major recruiting service, and he was a U.S. Army All-American. His physical stature – 5-foot-9, 216 pounds – is reminiscent of Smith, who was 5-9, 210 pounds while playing for the Dallas Cowboys.
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For a time, Davis was set to follow in Smith’s footsteps by going to the University of Florida, but he changed his mind late in the recruiting process after, he said, a member of the Gators’ coaching staff lied to him. Florida’s loss was South Carolina’s gain as Davis pledged to South Carolina in the weeks after he decommitted from the Gators.
“While I was committed to Florida, South Carolina was always there,” Davis said. “That was the team that didn’t stop recruiting me. Those guys showed me that they wanted me, and I was their first option.”
Davis, who rushed for 1,923 yards and 21 touchdowns at Class AAAAA Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., is considered among the country’s top 10 running back prospects by the major recruiting services. The highest of his rankings comes from 247Sports.com, which lists him as the country’s fifth-best prep running back.
“I like him,” CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “He’s small; he’s explosive. He’s a complete back, and I think he has the potential to be real good, but you know what? There are several backs like that. Half of them make it; half of them don’t.”
Niebuhr believes Davis will be one that makes it.
“He’s built like a little tank,” Niebuhr said. “He’s got some great strength in his upper body. His legs are always moving. He is very patient. He has excellent feet.
"Once he sees where a hole is, he has football speed. He can plant his foot and change direction without losing much speed.”
Davis is the brother of former Clemson running back James Davis, but their rushing styles are nothing alike, they say. James Davis was the Thunder in the Tigers’ Thunder and Lightning attackwhen he teamed with C.J. Spiller. Mike Davis relies more on his athleticism and elusiveness, Stephenson High School coach Ron Gartrell said.
Mike Davis weighs almost as much as his brother despite standing two inches shorter.
“He is way bigger than I was coming out of high school and probably will get even bigger,” James Davis said.
It’s hard to describe Davis’ style with a catchphrase, Gartrell said.
“His running style is multiple,” Gartrell said. “You can’t describe him in one way. He probably has the quickest feet of any running back we have had here. He can make people miss, but he does run with power. Mike is a great back. I think he’ll be a great addition to South Carolina.”
Davis also proved an adequate blocker and quick study at Stephenson.
“He picks up things real well,” Gartrell said. “He can do a lot of things for (the Gamecocks).”
Davis rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a junior at Stephenson, averaging 8 yards per carry.
“I think I bring everything,” he said.
Davis understood coming to South Carolina meant sitting behind Marcus Lattimore for at least one season, he said.
“Playing time is a factor, but it’s not the only factor,” he said. “You want to go in behind somebody with experience. You don’t want to just get thrown into the fire, but I’d like to come in and takesome load off his shoulders and get some playing time.”
Davis is a team player, said Stephenson teammate Kyle Fleetwood, a defensive back who also signed with the Gamecocks.
“Mike will do anything to help anyone, put his teammates in the best position to win,” Fleetwood said. “He’s fun to be around. I know sometimes it seems he can put himself out there, butMike is a great guy. Mike has always been a team-first type of guy.”
Throughout his Stephenson career, Davis constantly encouraged his teammates, whether they were seniors or freshmen, Gartrell said.