Plowing down obstacles clears path for Davis

Once considered `soft,' Redskins RB powers to top of NFL rushing leaders

September 24, 1999|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins running back Stephen Davis found himself trapped and the NFL's leading rusher couldn't break free this time.

"Can I put my clothes on now?," Davis asked a crowd of reporters who circled around his locker after Sunday's win. "Everybody else here has their's on. Don't you want to talk to anybody else?"

The media got off easy. On the football field, he eludes his pursuers by lowering his shoulder pads and running them over.

It's that power running style that has Davis perched atop the league in yards rushing (235) and points scored (32).

Not known for having breakaway speed, the 6-foot, 234-pound runner charges in between the offensive tackles, grinding out the tough yards in a similar fashion as former standout Redskins rushers Larry Brown, John Riggins and most recently, Terry Allen.

On Sunday, Davis bounced and spun off would-be New York Giants tacklers, gaining 59 yards in the first three Redskins' drives. Still, the most impressive statistic was that he rushed for nearly half of that total after sustaining the first hit on carries.

"When some running backs start out, they run to get tackled. Now, Stephen's running to break tackles," said running game coordinator Bobby Jackson, who has coached Davis since the Redskins drafted him in 1996. "There's a big difference and confidence is a big factor."

Perhaps anyone would have lacked confidence if put in Davis' situation.

A year removed from a first-team All-Southeastern Conference performance as a junior at Auburn, Davis was benched for much of his senior season when coach Terry Bowden altered the offensive philosophy. As a result, he dropped to a fourth-round pick and picked up a reputation of playing "soft" because he didn't hit the holes hard enough and avoided collisions.

In 1997, his second season with the Redskins, Davis finally made headlines one August afternoon, but for all the wrong reasons. When an apparent exchange of good-natured ribbing with wide receiver Michael Westbrook turned heated during a preseason practice, Davis was sucker-punched to the ground by Westbrook, who then jumped on Davis and hit him several more times.

Davis refuses to talk about the incident, and Westbrook has since acknowledged it was his fault. Both have seemingly resolved the altercation as they have given each other high-fives in the end zone and have talked on the sideline.

"I have no hard feelings," Davis said after the fight. "It's done, but I haven't forgotten it."

As for playing time, Davis waited behind Allen for three years. When the Redskins needed a fullback in 1998, he volunteered his services in order to crack the starting lineup although he had never played that position in his career.

The effort went unappreciated. After Allen went down with an injury, the Redskins named rookie Skip Hicks the starter at tailback and continued to use Davis in a role he openly felt uncomfortable about playing.

It wasn't until Davis began smacking tacklers that he forged his way into the starting tailback race.

"Terry Allen and myself would pick with him all the time that he's running soft," fellow running back Brian Mitchell said. "But he's running with a vengeance this year. Basically, he's matured. He's seen what it takes and how to run. He can do a lot of damage now."

When training camp opened this season, coach Norv Turner said Davis and Hicks would battle for the starting job after the Redskins cut Allen and opted not to draft Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams.

However, many Redskins officials favored Hicks' big-play ability over Davis' steadiness. It appeared few were giving Davis much of a chance, especially when Hicks graced the cover of TV Guide's NFL preview editions in the Washington area.

But Hicks ran like he apparently had the job won, and Davis continually plowed down opponents.

"I'm running with a little more determination this year," Davis said. "For the past three years, I've been watching Terry [Allen] run the ball. I saw the opportunity for me to get a starting job and do the things I'm capable of doing."

With his experience at fullback, Davis learned his physical, low-to-the-ground running style as well as understanding the roles of the blockers. He rarely makes jaw-dropping cutbacks in the open field and never misses a chance to drop his shoulder, banging into a linebacker to pick up an extra yard before heading out of bounds.

And it doesn't hurt that teams cannot stack the line of scrimmage since the Redskins have Brad Johnson, the NFL's top-rated passer.

In the season opener against Dallas, Davis cracked 100 yards for the first time in his career. The next week at the Meadowlands, he established another career high with 126 yards and scored three rushing touchdowns, tying a club record.

He became the first Redskins player to rush for over 100 yards and score multiple touchdowns in consecutive weeks since John Riggins did it in January 1984 in the NFC playoffs. That's not bad for a 25-year-old running back who entered this season with just five career rushing touchdowns.

"You all see the guy that comes in at Year One and has an immediate impact," Turner said. "Those are great stories, but these are the ones that really mean something because he's worked for this. He's worked and waited.' "

So after the Giants game, a slew of reporters had cornered Davis, who couldn't talk his way out of cutting the interview short. One writer said to Davis that he should welcome this problem every week.

"Yeah," said Davis, cracking a rare smile in front of the media, "I guess you're probably right."

Pub Date: 9/24/99

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