Great Expectations

As the confetti fell following Ole Miss' second consecutive Cotton Bowl win, head coach Houston Nutt was faced with a daunting reality.

The Rebel offense, sparked by running back/wide receiver Dexter McCluster, would soon be replacing eight starters. None were more instrumental than McCluster, who became the first player in Southeastern Conference history to amass 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in a single season.

Not that Ole Miss was starving for numbers at running back. Even after a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, Brandon Bolden was set to return. Also down the depth chart were two capable backs in Enrique Davis and Rodney Scott.

Still, replacing McCluster's production was next to impossible. So Nutt entered spring practices in April with an open mind.

Enrique Davis

What he found was a new and improved Davis – once considered an underachieving talent in his two years in Oxford.

"We consider him a starter," Nutt said. "We think of him the same way we do Brandon (Bolden). He'll get a lot of carries, because he's a load."

Davis arrived at Ole Miss in the fall of 2008 to lofty expectations. He was rated the No. 1 postgraduate player in the nation by, after his only season at Hargrave Military Academy.

He saw action in 12 games as a true freshman, but ranked fourth on the team in rushing with 64 carries and 244 yards. His sophomore season wasn't much better, when his playing time was cut to seven games, and his carries to 32. He managed only 110 yards and two touchdowns.

"You want to get better, but you can't sit there and get mad," Davis said. "If you really want to do something and you really want something to happen, you've got to do something about it."

What he did was commit to the film room and the team's strength and conditioning program in the offseason. His primary weaknesses – pass blocking and flexibility – needed work. So he pounded away at his technique.

Now in August, he's reaping the rewards.

"It really started this past spring," Ole Miss running backs coach Derrick Nix said. "For those 15 practices, we saw the guy that we recruited two years ago. I think he's wanted it. He's worked. He knows what's at stake to fight for playing time."

Few have doubted Davis' talent.

Enrique Davis

But his struggles in range of motion, receiving and pass blocking hindered his development for the better part of two seasons. So he attacked summer workouts with a different mindset.

Nix said Davis lived in the indoor practice facility, catching pass after pass. He sought to become faster, so he changed his workout routine under strength and conditioning coach Don Decker, focusing on more exaggerated squats and flexibility exercises.

"I feel like when I came in here, I was a runner. I wasn't a complete back," Davis said. "I wasn't used to the whole blocking scheme and picking up protections. I had to get better at that. I loosened my hips working with Coach Deck in the strength program. I was fast vertical, but I had to get the same way horizontal. Basically I did that.

"I can really tell a difference."

In the team's first scrimmage of fall Saturday, Davis led all rushers with five carries for 57 yards and a touchdown. His final line was aided by a 56-yard scoring dash towards the stadium's south end zone, when his improved speed and running style was on display on what appeared as a routine run up the middle.

Ole Miss is into its second week of fall practices. Davis, meanwhile, is the second-team running back behind Bolden. But if he continues at his current pace, it may not be for long.

"He's hung in there," Nix said. "Every kid with those types of accolades probably thinks they'll come in and be the starter right off. He's kind of earned his way, earned his keep a little bit. It's made him a better player today."

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