FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith noticed a look of determination on Knile Davis’ face during class last Friday.
The No. 10 Razorbacks weren’t scheduled to take part in their final preseason scrimmage until that evening, but Smith had no doubt where his teammate’s thoughts were.
Davis’ excitement was understandable, given that the running back hadn’t been tackled in more than a year — not since breaking his left ankle during the preseason last August. That excitement paled in comparison to the relief his teammates and coaches felt after Davis emerged from the scrimmage without incident, setting the stage for his return to action against Jacksonville State on Saturday in the season opener.
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“Knile is still Knile, from what I saw Friday night,” Smith said. “Everybody is going to be excited, and I know he’s going to put on a show Saturday.”
Davis led all Southeastern Conference running backs with 1,322 yards rushing two seasons ago before missing last season with the ankle injury. He took part in spring practice and was a part of preseason camp throughout, but Arkansas coach John L. Smith elected to hold Davis out of full contact drills until Friday’s scrimmage.
Smith liked what he saw from the junior, even if he was initially less than pleased with the result of the first carry.
“The first time they tackled him all the way to the ground, he coughed the ball up,” Smith said. “But the ground caused the fumble, so it would not have been a fumble. … He’s ready to go, though. He’s excited. And I think it was good for him, without a doubt, to take some hits and feel good about himself.”
Davis wasn’t made available by Arkansas on Monday, but he tweeted “Hahaha still got it,” following the closed scrimmage.
The preseason was largely uneventful for the Razorbacks. Linebackers Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith, along with safety Eric Bennett, battled minor injuries, but by in large Arkansas emerged from camp healthy and eager to build on last season’s 11-2 finish.
The lack of suspense was just fine for first-team All-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson. It was a far cry from the spring, when coach Bobby Petrino was fired for hiring his mistress and initially lying about her presence at his April 1 motorcycle accident.
“There’s not any big stories to write during the fall camp,” Wilson laughed. “Everybody’s settled in, and I think we know what to expect. Everything’s business as usual here.”
Wilson served as a stabilizing presence during the spring following Petrino’s firing and prior to Smith’s hiring. The senior threw for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first season as the starter last year, and he made it clear after deciding to bypass the NFL draft that he did so to try and win SEC and national championships in his final season.
That hasn’t changed as he prepares to open the season against a Gamecocks team that is well-versed against SEC competition, having defeated Mississippi in double overtime two seasons ago.
“This is a statement game for us,” Wilson said. “We’re going to put on a show.”
Arkansas led the SEC in total offense and scoring last season, and it’s led the conference in passing offense in each of the last three seasons. That was under Petrino’s watchful eye, though, and the Razorbacks will be watched closely this season under the personable and ever-entertaining Smith.
Smith signed a 10-month contract when he was hired in April, and his future at Arkansas after this season is anything but certain. The former Michigan State and Louisville coach isn’t looking that far ahead, but he does expect at moment of reflection when he takes the field Saturday as a head coach for the first time since being fired by the Spartans after the 2006 season.
“Probably when we come out of the tunnel, come through the `A’; I’m excited about that,” Smith said. “I’m fired up, and I know our kids are going to be fired up and are looking forward to having a good year, having a great year, a special year.”