The junior tailback, arguably the most explosive in college football, has spent most of the year on the shelf, nursing nagging injuries to each of his ankles that have left him frustrated, waiting and watching from the sidelines.
Wednesday should be different. Davis has appeared healthy in bowl practices this month, his confidence and the uncanny burst of speed he possesses returning to the Badgers' practice field.
Davis is expected to play throughout the Badgers' Music City Bowl matchup with Auburn New Year's Eve, but after many false starts this season, it is important to stress that he should be healthy for the game. Davis has looked strong in practice, turning on that extra gear with authority and displaying the talent that made him one of the best backs in the country before the injuries piled up this season.
"I've just been happy to be back and run around," Davis said. "The guys are excited."
Whether he has been fighting injuries or running for more than 1,400 yards in consecutive seasons, Davis has been far from long-winded when talking about his own play. So it comes as no surprise when Davis nods and offers a simple acknowledgement when asked whether he feels at or near 100 percent as Wisconsin prepares for Auburn.
"He says he feels good," offensive coordinator Brian White said. "Now, 100 percent? I don't know if he's 100 percent but he's pretty close, as close as he's been all year."
Prior to this season, few backs could compare with Davis, who had more yards (3,021) in the past two seasons than any returning player in Division I football. After rushing for 414 yards in the Badgers' first two games this season, Heisman talk was in the air. Davis, though, severely sprained his left ankle on his second carry in Wisconsin's 23-5 loss to UNLV Sept. 13, leaving the game with 11 yards. He never fully recovered this season, playing in four games the rest of the way, with 38 carries for 180 yards and three touchdowns in those contests.
"We talk and I know he's doing everything he can to get back on this field," said Wisconsin receiver Lee Evans, who this season returned from a major knee injury suffered in spring of 2002. "He knows there's no pressure from me, as much as we all want him back out there, we want him back out there right. We talk a lot and it's a tough injury for him to deal with but he's been working diligently on it and when he comes back, we'll know he's feeling better."
Davis initially missed two games, then returned against Penn State and ran eight times for 35 yards before re-aggravating the injury in the second quarter. He played two weeks later in Wisconsin's 26-23 loss to Purdue and ran 18 times for 96 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Booker Stanley and sophomore Dwayne Smith, who handled the tailback duties in Davis' absences this year, carried four times for one yard in that game. Davis, though, suffered a right ankle sprain against Northwestern the following week, leaving the game in the first quarter after notching 39 yards on five attempts. After missing two more games, Davis returned to play Iowa, but re-injured his right ankle in the first half, with seven carries, 10 yards and two touchdowns to his credit.
"We're excited for him to get back—even when he was back in the Iowa game for a little bit, he was out there running hard, competing hard and right in the mix of that game and if he had played the whole game, things may have been different," Evans said.
Smith leads the team with 856 yards rushing and nine touchdowns, followed by Davis (605, 7) and Stanley (523, 5). If Davis cannot go through the course of four quarters against Auburn, Smith and Stanley will be ready to fill in yet again. While the younger players have done an admirable job in relief—Smith earned All-Big Ten honorable mention for his efforts—the running game has missed Davis' game-breaking ability when he is not in the lineup.
The Badgers will need all the offense they can muster against Auburn, a team that has four All-SEC performers on defense, led by linebacker Karlos Dansby, an unanimous first-team selection by league coaches and an American Football Coaches Association All-American selection.
"I expect them to play pretty fast," Davis said. "They move pretty well, they've got some good options on defense."