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Why Jesuit alumnus Malik Davis is the Gators’ X-factor

Hillsborough County’s all-time leading rusher has more receptions than any UF player.
Florida Gators running back Malik Davis is Hillsborough County's all-time leading rusher. But it's his receiving skills that will make him one of UF's most important players this season.
Florida Gators running back Malik Davis is Hillsborough County's all-time leading rusher. But it's his receiving skills that will make him one of UF's most important players this season. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2020) ]
Published Aug. 26, 2021

Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen likes to say that his offense is built on mismatches.

Last year, he relied on two of the biggest ones in recent program history (Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney) to win the SEC East. With Pitts and Toney both gone, UF will be looking for different kinds of mismatches to take advantage of this fall.

And that makes Jesuit High alumnus Malik Davis the Gators’ 2021 X-factor.

Florida Gators running back Malik Davis (20) carries during a 2017 game against Texas A&M at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, in Gainesville.
Florida Gators running back Malik Davis (20) carries during a 2017 game against Texas A&M at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, in Gainesville. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Pitts and Toney became stars in part because of how Mullen used their first-round talent. Pitts could line up as a traditional tight end (next to the tackle), slot receiver or wide receiver. Toney could shift from receiver to the backfield. Moving them around allowed Mullen to create and exploit mismatches based on the opponent’s personnel.

Related: Why Gators’ Kyle Pitts is a generational tight end built for today’s NFL

The Gators don’t have a Pitts or Toney on this roster. But Mullen says they do have running backs with “multiple abilities to do different things on the field with the skillset that way.” Translation: backs who can line up in different formations to make advantageous matchups.

Backs like Davis.

All three of UF’s top returners — Davis, Dameon Pierce and Nay’Quan Wright — are capable pass catchers; they all lined up at receiver against Arkansas last year, for instance, and all caught at least 17 passes. But Davis is the most intriguing.

Then-Jesuit senior Malik Davis hugs fellow classmates following a convocation at the gymnasium in 2016, where he announced his intention to attend the University of Florida.
Then-Jesuit senior Malik Davis hugs fellow classmates following a convocation at the gymnasium in 2016, where he announced his intention to attend the University of Florida.

When healthy, Davis has shown flashes of the skillset that made him Hillsborough County’s all-time leading rusher. He was UF’s No. 2 rusher as a freshman and last year. Davis has taken the reps he missed with back-to-back season-ending injuries in 2017-18 and no longer looks hobbled, mentally or physically.

“He’s been very, very confident in his ability again,” running backs coach Greg Knox said. “... We’re seeing that explosiveness that he showed when he was a freshman.”

The explosiveness can also show up in the passing game. Davis has more career catches (47) than any other Gator and had more receiving yards last year (377) than rushing yards (310). Those statistics show significant growth from Davis’ seven-catch freshman season.

Related: How Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC will affect recruiting

“I think just coming in as a freshman and then learning and seeing that the game of football is changing, even at the next level, that’s what’s required from running backs,” Davis said. “So I just took it upon myself to just work on that. That’s something that I take pride in just working on, because it’s needed, and it definitely helps.”

Malik Davis runs for a touchdown during a 2017 game against Vanderbilt in Gainesville.
Malik Davis runs for a touchdown during a 2017 game against Vanderbilt in Gainesville. [ Times (2017) ]

To see how much it helps, go back to one pivotal moment against Georgia last year, when UF trailed 14-7 and faced second and long. Davis lined up wide left before moving to the backfield. Georgia inside linebacker Monty Rice went with him.

After the snap, Davis darted back to the left for a pass. Instead of being defended by Rice — a third-round pick by the Titans — Davis’ defender was an edge rusher, Jermaine Johnson, who was four inches taller and five pounds heavier than Rice. UF capitalized on the mismatch: Davis’ sliding catch on a wheel route gained 22 yards to keep a scoring drive alive in a 44-28 triumph.

Davis will likely have more opportunities like that this fall. UF has hinted at more formations with two running backs. Davis’ ability to flex out wide to receiver would add another wrinkle to a personnel package. But it only works because he has gained enough knowledge of the offense to juggle different types of assignments.

Related: We ranked all 78 Florida college football games from worst to first

“We can you do multiple things with him because he can handle the mental aspect of it,” Mullen said.

As long as Davis continues to show he can handle the physical aspects, too, he’ll have a shot at becoming one of Mullen’s consistent mismatch-makers and an X-factor this fall.

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