Justin Davis sat and watched.
Davis sat idly and watched it all. It’s all he could do. Still not cleared to play after suffering a rib cartilage injury in fall camp, Davis was a third party to the Trojans’ win in Week 1. Like all the fans in the Coliseum stands, he surveyed the now bountiful running back weapons USC could produce.
All the hard work he put in through the spring and summer to earn the starting position meant nothing while he sat on the bench. All the licks he took last season when it was just him and Buck Allen to carry the workload throughout the practice week and during games may have seemed for naught as he was relegated to watching from the sidelines.
When Davis finally was cleared to return to practice this week, you could sense his resolve and determination to not fall further down the totem pole. He didn’t want to sit or watch anymore. His preparation turned into his play.
Against Idaho on Saturday, Davis rushed for 74 yards and two scores on five first-half carries. The seemingly forgotten man raised eyebrows and reminded people why he was the frontrunner to be the Trojans’ bell cow before injuries held him to less than a handful of full fall camp practices.
On his first touch, Davis took a handoff from the 19-yard line and juked outside. He raced around the edge before spinning inside the 5-yard line and diving for the goal line. He landed one yard short and pounded the ground in frustration after being taken down. But he quickly turned that into a smile on the next carry, semi-hurdling over a defender to get in the end zone for Davis’ first score of the year.
“Man it felt so good because I came back from one injury in training camp and got hurt again,” Davis said. “I can’t lie. I was down on myself a little bit, but now I’m back in a groove and I’m feeling good.”
The Trojans quickly regained the ball with a three-and-out defensive stand and worked the ball to the 50-yard line before calling on Davis to check back into the game. The ball immediately went to him on a stretch run to the right. Davis followed his blockers until he got to the line of scrimmage when he put his foot in the ground and cut up field, making a linebacker fly by grasping for air. He made a small change of direction once he got in the hole and then burst through the Vandals’ second line for a big 43-yard gain that pushed him over the 1,000-yard mark in his Trojan career.
USC went right back to Justin Davis once again on what appeared to be the same play call. Davis followed his offensive lineman for a couple of yards and then with defenders trying to wrap him up, he lunged into the end zone for his second score to put the Trojans up 14-0 in what would become a 59-9 slaughter.
USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said after the game the gameplan was to get Davis involved early.
“It’s great that the coaches trust me like that,” Davis said. “I just want to come in to practice everyday, bring in my intensity to make them feel good enough to put me into a game. My motto is to come every day and work hard like it’s my last day.”
With the Trojans having five scholarship tailbacks rather than only two healthy rushers last season, Davis and the rest of the stable is now able to give full effort during the practice week, something Sarkisian believes has played into the run games strong start after two games.
“With five guys, these guys can practice really hard, so when the game comes they don’t know anything different,” he said. “When they get the ball, they don’t have to change speeds. That the way they’ve run all week.”
Rather than an overwhelming pressure to outperform the other running backs, Davis said the deeper backfield is a great opportunity for each of them. No longer does he have to worry about trying to save himself for the games since he’s not splitting the entire workload with one other guy.
“Last year it was just me and Buck Allen and we kind of got banged up toward the end of the season,” Davis said. “We’re going to stay fresh and no matter who is in there, the defense has to be on their toes because we’ve all got good talent.”
That includes the seemingly forgotten Davis, who instead of sitting and watching was able to be a difference maker.
“Going into Pac-12 play, I’ve got to get in a rhythm and this is where it starts. We’re going to take all this momentum going forward and hopefully it pays off.”