Young backs rush to the top Broncos' Davis leads a crowded pack of emerging NFL stars

October 10, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The Green Bay Packers were on the prowl for a running back on the second day of the 1995 NFL draft. The best runners in a strong class -- Ki-Jana Carter, Tyrone Wheatley, Napoleon Kaufman -- were long gone, and what was left was a group of skilled, but flawed, prospects.

As the fifth-round wound to a close, general manager Ron Wolf mulled over his options. One player he liked was Travis Jervey, a speed back who had averaged 7.7 yards a carry his senior year at The Citadel.

Then John Dorsey, the Packers' director of college scouting who covers the southeast, recommended an underachieving back from Georgia. The name was Terrell Davis.

"John wanted to take him," Wolf said. "The way we do it, we say [to a scout], 'Give us something to go with.' "

Dorsey, from Annapolis, didn't have enough ammunition. Davis had closed out an undistinguished college career with a 445-yard season as a senior. Wolf frowned and took Jervey with his fifth-round pick.

As great as that draft was for the Packers -- they got five starters and two backups, including Jervey, from 10 picks -- it could have been even better. They could've have had Terrell Davis.

Of course, any team could have had Davis, who wasn't chosen until the 196th pick in the sixth round by the Denver Broncos.

Two years later, he was a 1,538-yard rusher for the Broncos and the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year. This year, he leads the league in rushing after six weeks with 776 yards (an average of 129.3 a game) and is a major factor in Denver's 6-0 season.

Davis, a rare package of speed and power at 5 feet 11 and 200 pounds, leads the charge of running backs emerging as the NFL's next generation of stars. It's an invigorating group that takes in Eddie George, Curtis Martin, Warrick Dunn, Robert Smith, Adrian Murrell and Kaufman.

There is room at the top of the running back chart this season, too, now that Emmitt Smith of Dallas and Thurman Thomas of Buffalo have lost a step, although the best of the bunch, Detroit's Barry Sanders, is still going full bore.

Wolf, a celebrated judge of talent, was asked what didn't he like about Davis in the spring of 1995.

"The fact that he didn't play, that's one thing I didn't like," Wolf said. "He sure put that to bed. I would have been a genius."

No one expects a sixth-round pick to lead the league in rushing, let alone be named Offensive Player of the Year. In hindsight, Davis was one of two huge steals from the class of 1995.

The other was Martin, who has gone to two Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl for the New England Patriots in two seasons. He was a third-round pick that year, the 74th choice overall, after being limited to two games his senior year with an ankle injury.

In a draft in which five running backs were taken in the first round, Martin was the 10th back selected, behind the likes of Ray Zellars, Sherman Williams, Terrell Fletcher and William Henderson.

Davis was the 21st back off the board, right behind Ryan Christopherson, Jervey, Cory Schlesinger and Dino Philyaw.

Bill Kuharich, president and general manager of the New Orleans Saints, said he isn't surprised when a running back makes a big splash as a low-round draft pick because of all the variables.

"A lot of times when you see running backs emerge who weren't high picks, it's because their skills at the collegiate level hadn't fully blossomed yet," Kuharich said. "There are a lot of intangible factors -- opportunity, the team you're with, the philosophy of the offense.

"Curtis Martin was injured at Pittsburgh, and Terrell Davis had a very mediocre senior year. Adrian Murrell had an outstanding college career, but he went into a situation [with the New York Jets] where he did not get a lot of opportunity until recently."

Murrell was a fifth-round pick in 1993 out of West Virginia. He did little with the Jets until last year, when he became the third running back in history to rush for more than 1,000 yards on a team that won only one game.

Other notable low-round successes are Green Bay's Dorsey Levens (fifth round) and Chicago's Raymont Harris (fourth round), both from the 1994 draft.

But Davis is clearly the biggest success story among running backs in a season when big runs are up. He already has five 100-yard rushing games this season, and 15 in his 36-game career. Last season, he lost the rushing title to Sanders on the final Monday night of the season by 15 yards.

"It's better opportunity," Davis said of his improbable ascent. "It's amazing what confidence can do for you, when someone says, 'We're all going to ride you.' In college, I didn't have that opportunity. I wasn't a key part of the offense. Here, they make me feel like I'm a key part of the offense."

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