FAYETTEVILLE —Arkansas running back Knile Davis had high hopes for 2012.
The junior was touted as one of the Southeastern Conference’s best running backs while working his way back from last August’s ankle injury. He was regarded, along with quarterback Tyler Wilson, as a preseason Heisman Trophy hopeful. His return was supposed to give the Razorbacks a dangerous rushing attack, something that would prove pivotal in Arkansas’ push to win an SEC Championship.
So rushing for 208 yards through four games — and three losses — wasn’t expected.
“It’s bad,” Davis said before last week’s loss at Rutgers. “Got to get better.”
But the running back can take solace in one thing as Arkansas (1-3, 0-1 in Southeastern Conference) prepares to play Texas A&M (2-1, 0-1) at Kyle Field. He won’t be the only back who feels the same way Saturday.
Texas A&M’s Christine Michael is experiencing some of the same frustrations with just 59 yards on 20 carries.
The two, who were considered among the SEC’s best in the preseason, haven’t lived up to expectations for various reasons during the first month of the season.
Davis — who was not available for interviews this week — is averaging just 3.3 yards a carry, struggling to get his footing and explosiveness behind a line that has had problems opening holes. Michael has had trouble just getting on the field, serving a one-game suspension on Sept. 15 and watching from the sideline until the second half of last week’s win against South Carolina State.
It’s safe to say both would like their early-season frustrations to turn around when Arkansas and Texas A&M meet for the first time as SEC opponents.
“It just needs to improve,” Davis said last week about his performance so far.
Davis’ problems have surprised the Razorbacks, who protected the running back from contact throughout preseason practice to keep him healthy for the season. He showed some rust in the season opener, but still finished with a team-high 70 yards and a touchdown. The problem: Davis’ production has slipped in each game since.
It included last week’s 17-yard performance, which was Davis’ lowest rushing total since stepping into the role as Arkansas’ primary ball carrier in 2010.
“You see he’s still a little sore, but you see him working in the training room, trying to get better each day,” receiver Brandon Mitchell said. “Like (Tuesday), he came out and was just running full speed like he always does, just trying to get better.”
The blame doesn’t fall on Davis alone. Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of running the ball, period, during its disastrous start. The Razorbacks rank 112th in the nation in rushing yards a game (97.8) and its longest run to date was a 27-yard scramble by quarterback Brandon Allen in the Louisiana-Monroe loss.
No other Razorback has a run longer than 20 yards through four games.
But Wilson said Davis, one of six team captains, hasn’t given up and his 2010 performance was proof there’s still time to turn it around. Davis rushed for 1,201 yards and 12 touchdowns over the final nine games, including the Sugar Bowl.
“Knile’s always in a pretty good state,” Wilson said. “He’s a good strong kid. I think there’s a lot of us in the same boat. We’re pretty strong people and you’ve just got to continue to battle. Yeah, it’s not the way you draw it up. It’s not how it should have been or how it could have been. You could say that and look at hypotheticals a lot.
“But this is what it is and we’ve just got to keep going.”
Arkansas is aware the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Michael is capable of a big game as well.
The Beaumont native was on pace for 1,000 yards in 2011, but went down with a season-ending knee injury after nine games. He still finished with 899 yards, which included a 230-yard performance against the Razorbacks in Cowboys Stadium.
First-year coach Kevin Sumlin was asked if Michael’s performance against Arkansas last year would have any carryover Saturday. Sumlin, who suspended Michael one game for violating team rules and didn’t put him on the field until the second half of last week’s blowout win against South Carolina State, didn’t flinch.
“That has no bearing on this game this year,” Sumlin said Tuesday. “We’ve approached every game this year that way. This game is no different. …
“It’s hard for you to perform if you’re not at the game.”
Texas A&M will start Ben Malena (145 yards on 22 carries) for the second straight week. Trey Williams (20 carries, 69 yards) also will get opportunities as will the team’s leading rusher, quarterback Johnny Manziel (38 carries, 262 yards, 5 TDs).
Malena and Manziel combined for 166 rushing yards in the 70-14 win against South Carolina State. Michael was limited to 26 yards.
But offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said the Aggies want Michael more involved as the season progresses. The key is getting on the same page.
“You know, just us calling plays that fit for him and how he’s fitting into our system and things of that nature,” Kingsbury said. “We’re still feeling that out.”
So are the Razorbacks. Davis is expected to remain a big piece of Arkansas’ rushing efforts this week, although coach John L. Smith hinted Monday that backup Dennis Johnson deserved more work after his performance against Rutgers.
Johnson is averaging 6.7 yards on 22 carries through four games, showing more burst through the line of scrimmage. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said he was using the rest of the week to evaluate how the carries could be divided Saturday.
“(Johnson) had some good runs,” Petrino said. “It’s kind of like we’ve said forever, the guys who are hot are the guys we’ve got to get the ball to the most.”
Arkansas hasn’t gotten much production when Wilson and the quarterbacks have handed the ball to Davis through four games. But guard Alvin Bailey said it’s not too late for the running back to make an impact beginning with the Texas A&M game.
“He still comes out every day and works hard,” Bailey said. “It’s tough coming back off of injury. It’s his first time playing in awhile. He’ll get back to himself. We’re four games in. We’ve still got eight more. We’ve still got a long ways to go.”