In its simplest form, the running back position is about the balance between explosion and discipline. Discipline because you have to be true to the design of the offense and understand that every carry can't go for 40+ yards. Explosion because you can't afford to miss opportunities for 40+ yard plays when those opportunities arise.
There is no questioning South Carolina running back Mike Davis' explosion.
During the 2013 season, the 21-year-old back ran for 1,183 yards on 203 carries. He averaged 5.8 yards per attempt and scored 11 touchdowns while also contributing 38 receptions for 387 yards. In 12 games, Davis had a longest run of at least 20 yards on seven occasions. Five of those occasions saw him gain over 40 yards on a single rush attempt.
Speed can often be a very overrated aspect of a player's skill set. At the running back position in particular, it can prove to be fool's gold without other important traits. In college, Davis understood how to use his speed to be effective.
On this play, Davis doesn't have to create a route to the second level. The South Carolina offensive line creates a wide running lane up the middle of the defense for Davis to run straight through. He is immediately vaulted into space on the second-level, with the nearest unaccounted-for defender roughly eight yards away from the line of scrimmage.
Once on the second level, Davis has a wide open running lane down the middle of the defense. He would have a certain first down and a very good gain if he simply attacked this space. Instead, he turns his attention to the outside defender. He reads the positioning of the outside defender in relation to his receiver. That receiver isn't effectively blocking the defender, but he is in a good position to allow Davis to cut behind his back and towards the sideline.
Davis aggressively plants his feet and quickly turns his shoulders towards the sideline. He moves too quickly for the first defender to reverse his momentum and get outside of the receiver who was trying to block him. This releases Davis to the outside, but there is another defender with another receiver in position to cut him off before he can escape outside.
The outside receiver is doing an even worse job than the inside receiver. He clearly didn't expect Davis to cut as far back to the outside as he did.
Making this kind of decision can often backfire on a running back. It probably should have backfired on Davis, but his speed turned it into a good decision. When thinking of speed, the first thing that normally comes to mind is breakaway, straight-line speed that can be measured in a 40 time. However, speed isn't just one thing in the NFL.
A part of speed that is vitally important is acceleration. Acceleration is what allows Davis to escape to the sideline on this play. The outside defender was actually in a very good position to tackle Davis just a couple of yards after the first down marker. While he pivoted to get in a position to tackle Davis, the running back was already erasing his angle advantage. This forced the defender to drift further downfield and look to recover further down the sideline than he would have initially expected.
Davis' acceleration alone is very impressive, but it's even more impressive when you consider that he has already advanced onto the second level and made a hard cut to change direction.
Outrunning angles and getting around the edge of college defenses are things that Davis does consistently and comfortably. Being fast enough to outrun the defense and score from distance in college is slightly different from doing it in the NFL, where the athleticism of the defense sharply improves. In spite of that, Davis shouldn't have any issues translating to the next level.
Acceleration is Davis' greatest strength. It's also the most important aspect of speed in the NFL for a home-run hitting back. NFL defenses swarm to the football. Linebackers are as fast as they've ever been and defensive backs remain some of the most impressive athletes in professional sports when it comes to movement. If you have the top speed to run away from defenders on the second level, but you need 20 yards to get to that top speed, you will rarely ever get a chance to show off your ability to score from distance in the NFL.
Acceleration is also more important because of its value when running between the tackles. Running between the tackles requires quickly recognizing and quickly running through holes. Those holes don't generally stay open for a long time. Furthermore, if you are running off tackle or behind a group of blockers to the outside, you need to show patience behind the line of scrimmage before quickly hitting top speed to exploit space when it appears.
Davis has the acceleration to be effective in these areas. He is also a disciplined runner who understands how to find running lanes in different ways.
In comparison to most backs with his kind of speed, Davis has good vision and discipline. During his worst game of the season last year, a 15 carry for 22 yard performance against Clemson, most of his struggles were the result of outstanding defensive play. The defense regularly penetrated the backfield at the snap and disrupted the design of the play. That game also highlighted one major concern for the South Carolina back.
On this play at the goalline, the defense has five players lined up either to the right of the center or directly in line with the center before the snap. The offense has two tight ends and two receivers to the other side of the field, leaving just a left guard and left tackle to that side of the center. This means that the offense is unlikely to be successful running off the left side unless they pull their right guard or right tackle to that side of the field to make up the numbers.
Davis immediately plants his left foot when he gets the ball from his quarterback so that he can push back towards the other side of the field. It's unclear if the play was designed to immediately cut back towards the other side of the field or if Davis simply recognized the numbers imbalance before the snap. There is no issue with the placement of his left foot here, but his right is a problem. Davis doesn't turn his right foot towards the far sideline enough and he plants it too far down the field. This restricts how sharply he can turn with his first step.
We quickly learn that Davis didn't plant his left foot to turn his shoulders towards the far sideline and run outside right tackle.
Instead, Davis planted his left foot so that he could set up a spin move. His spin move doesn't dramatically alter the direction he is going in and it sets him up so that his back is facing where he should be going. The blocking outside of the right tackle is excellent at this point of the play, while the tight end, who is in the position of the right tackle after he blocked down inside, is doing enough to give Davis a chance to escape outside.
Davis has already proven that he has the acceleration to outrun angles over a short area. Had he shown better footwork at the start of this play, he likely would have had a very easy touchdown run.
Spin moves can be useful to bounce off or elude tackles in the open field. They aren't useful in very tight situations at the goal line. Davis' spin move simply made him an easier target for the defender to hit him. He essentially just turned his back to the play and stayed in the same spot.
This play is an example of where Davis' footwork becomes a problem, but that's not to say that he has bad footwork across the board. Comparisons to Gurley may be unfair, because Gurley is the type of back who will likely excel no matter where he lands in the NFL. Davis' success should be more dependent on where he lands.
When asked to only make one cut on any given play, Davis is a very effective back. He is able to sustain his speed and balance through heavy plantings of his feet and he has the acceleration to not be punished by a sharp change of direction.
On this play, Davis is running off right tackle. At the snap, both his right tackle and the tight end who lined up to that side of the field block down inside. Meanwhile, the right guard and center pull behind them to act as a cavalcade for Davis. While they move ahead of him, Davis patiently waits and keeps his eyes on the movement ahead of him.
Before the two pulling blockers touch a defender, Davis is simply moving with them. He doesn't try to find a running lane or close the space between he and the line of scrimmage. He is comfortable to wait for his moment to strike. As soon as the first blocker ahead of him is engaged by a defender, he sees that moment.
The first defender to engage one of his blockers lacks discipline. He aggressively attacks the outside shoulder of offensive player and makes it easy for the blocker to clean him out of the running lane. As soon as that blocker committed to his aggressive outside move, Davis planted his leg in the ground and dropped his shoulder before accelerating through the interior of the defense.
This isn't an significantly difficult play to make. Davis just needed to show patience and make a fairly simple read while on the move to get onto the second level. What is significant is the speed and balance at which Davis moves while making this read. He is forced to take a high step to avoid a fallen body in front of him, but Davis is still able to transition from his planted foot to accelerating through the defense with ease.
Vision, patience, balance and footwork were all positives on this play. A negative to notice at the very end was how easily he was knocked out of bounds.
Making defenders miss isn't a strength of Davis' that you would expect to translate to the NFL. On this play, he never squared up to the defender to threaten an inside run before breaking back outside. That is the kind of movement that you would expect from Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin. Gordon is a very elusive player in the open field who uses his quick feet and fluid athleticism to elude defenders in the open field.
Unlike Gordon, Davis is more of a linear athlete.
Davis has a well-built frame, but he wouldn't be considered a big back when sharing the field with NFL players. He doesn't violently attack contact or consistently fight through tackles to sustain forward momentum on every snap. Realistically, to break tackles in the NFL you need to either be very powerful or be very elusive. Davis' greatest strength in this area is his ability to make hard cuts to take advantage of where the opposing player's momentum is dragging him. His jump cut isn't startlingly impressive, but it can be effective.
Breaking tackles won't be a necessity for Davis to be effective in the NFL. Because of his breakaway speed and his acceleration, he will always threaten big plays if he makes the first defender miss or if he is given a clean route onto the second level.
It's hard to put Davis on the same level as Gurley or Gordon because he doesn't appear to be the kind of running back who will mask the ineffectiveness of a bad offensive line. He lacks the subtlety behind the line of scrimmage and ability to break tackles to consistently create yardage when the design of the play is disrupted.
With that said, he is the kind of back who could lead the NFL in rushing if he lands in the right situation. He is the type of player who will be at his best running behind zone-blocking schemes that let him focus on making one cut before accelerating into space. The effectiveness of that kind of player on the field can be huge, but as previously explained, that's not exactly what determines value in the draft nowadays.
In order to be a first round running back in the draft now, you need to be the kind of talent who could potentially transcend situation. Davis doesn't appear to be that kind of player.