Former Jesuit star Malik Davis making his way with Gators

Davis has his Tennessee fan coach from high school rooting for the Gators. Well, sometimes.

Former Jesuit standout Malik Davis, a freshman tailback, is filling a big need for the backfield-challenged Gators.

TAMPA — On a typically muggy Saturday inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Jesuit High offensive coordinator Joe Gerena's version of orange and blue clashed with everyone else's.

Volunteer orange, Tiger blue.

Allegiances tugged at Gerena's soul and swag that day. His close friend, Tennessee quarterbacks coach (and former USF offensive coordinator) Mike Canales, had invited Gerena and his family, even leaving them Vols gear to wear. But Florida freshman tailback — and Jesuit alumnus — Malik Davis was bound to get some snaps.

"So we're sitting up in the Tennessee section and I told everybody around us, 'Listen, I'm pulling for Tennessee here, but if No. 20 (for UF) is in the game, I'm cheering for him — just so you know,' " Gerena said.

About three hours later, Davis took a handoff, swept left, dissected a pair of Vols defenders at his 40, and sprinted toward the end zone before cornerback Justin Martin chased him down and stripped the ball from Davis about 2 feet from the goal line, giving Tennessee possession.

Gerena's whoops turned into a wince. In four-plus seasons of watching Davis, it was the first time Gerena had ever seen him fumble in a regular-season game.

Of all the staggering high school numbers posted by the Gators' surging newcomer, this might remain the most astounding: In 831 career carries at Jesuit, Davis never lost a fumble.

"There was never, ever a question of his ball security," Gerena said.

But put that goal-line botch aside, and exactly nothing surprised Gerena about his former pupil's performance (four carries, 94 yards) in Florida's dramatic 26-20 triumph on Sept. 16.

The attributes Gators coach Jim McElwain is seeing from Davis as a college freshman are strikingly similar to what Gerena and Jesuit coach Matt Thompson saw from Davis as a Tigers freshman.

"He brings a little juice, there's no doubt," said McElwain, whose staff landed Hillsborough County's all-time prep rushing leader (7,025 yards) despite not offering until late October 2016.

"He's a little bit different. He's a slasher. He does a really good job of sticking his foot in the ground and running through inside arm tackles."

And he just might have slashed his way to a starting role, only two months after entering preseason camp fourth on the tailback depth chart.

With no end in sight to 2016 rushing leader Jordan Scarlett's off-field problems, which have him suspended, McElwain must keep leaning on a ball-carrying triumvirate of Davis, sophomore Lamical Perine and fifth-year senior Mark Thompson.

With 26 carries for 197 yards, Davis leads all Florida rushers. McElwain wouldn't say whether Davis will start today against Vanderbilt but acknowledged he will "play a bunch."

"He's been taking a bunch of reps, obviously, as he has previous weeks as well," McElwain said. "Obviously, he's doing a good job and will get a lot of carries."

Davis got 21 in last week's 28-27 win at Kentucky, churning out 93 yards in an effort reminiscent of his legendary 2015 performance against Tampa Catholic.

That night, with quarterback Vincent Testaverde sidelined by appendicitis, Thompson put the offense in Davis' hands. The junior responded with what Gerena called a series of "violent runs," transforming would-be short gains into 7- or 8-yarders.

By game's end, he had a school-record 357 yards on 51 carries in a 35-20 Tigers triumph.

"You know, he's a very patient back," Gators center T.J. McCoy said.

"I feel like (the Kentucky) game he showed his physical-ness. We had that run, it was fourth and 1 I believe, and the (defensive) line did a great job … diving down our legs so we couldn't get movement, and he kind of just went around it and jumped over the pile and kept running to the linebacker and got some tough yards."

Seven yards, to be exact. Three plays later, with 43 seconds remaining, Luke Del Rio lobbed a winning 5-yard pass to Freddie Swain.

For Davis, that clutch finish last Saturday could parlay into a start.

"I'm just really proud of him," McCoy said. "I'm just really proud of his progression and how far he's come from camp."

Times staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report.