Almost a year ago, in the 2006 spring football game, Connell Davis’ potential as a running back seemed unlimited. Davis, then a redshirt freshman, played in front of the Memorial Stadium crowd for the first time and impressed fans with his speed, strength and elusiveness. He was the game’s leading rusher with 44 yards and scored the only rushing touchdown of the day.
On Thursday at Memorial Stadium, Davis was lined up on the other side of the ball, wearing the defense’s white jersey. Instead of trying to run over defenders, he was delivering hits as an outside linebacker.
Fumbling problems and the solid play of tailbacks Jimmy Jackson and Earl Goldsmith kept Davis buried at fifth on the depth chart all of last season and into spring practice this year, and the Missouri coaching staff suggested he make the position change.
“The coaches brought me into the office and asked me if I’d like to switch over to the dark side, which is the defensive side of the ball,” Davis said. “I thought it’d be a good decision to make because I’ve got more opportunity to get playing time. There’s younger guys at that position, and I feel like I can jump in and learn and catch up and get up to speed and have an opportunity to compete out there.”
Coach Gary Pinkel said Davis was capable of making the change because of his speed and athleticism, but he would have to have patience with learning the defensive system.
“He’s got a lot to learn, a zillion things to learn,” Pinkel said. “The big thing is he can’t get frustrated because of what he doesn’t know. Time will take care of all of that.”
It was hard to tell Thursday that Davis had just changed positions this week. He appeared comfortable at the position, making several big plays. Just a couple of plays into 11-on-11 drills, Davis put a huge hit on wide receiver Lucas Null to cause an incompletion. Later, Davis recovered a Chase Coffman fumble.
“I’m catching on to the defense pretty quick,” Davis said. “The more I learn to play, the more I get comfortable out there, then I can just react.”
Lining up at linebacker on the other side of the second-team defense was another converted running back, John Ruth. a junior who was a backup tailback before converting to the linebacker position last spring. As someone who has gone through the position change, he says he is trying to help Davis adjust.
“He’s running in my group right now, and all the linebackers are always talking to each other,” Ruth said. “We answer our own questions, so it’s a good communication. The biggest thing is just paying attention in the meetings and learning the defensive sets. In some ways, you have an advantage right now when we’re scrimmaging because you know what the other side of the ball is doing a little bit, so the reads might be a little bit easier for you. The biggest thing is just learning the spot.”
Ruth has his own desire to show coaches he can play. After playing linebacker last spring, he suffered a knee injury in fall camp that kept him out of the entire 2006 season.
“I was excited to go to the linebacker spot because I wasn’t being used on the offensive side of the ball, so there was a chance to get things done,” Ruth said. “So, it’s a big blow to take a big injury like that and have to come back from it. Every year you’re here it’s one more less that you get to be here. As you get older, you’ve got to work a lot harder to get on that field.”
Both players say that Saturday’s scrimmage and the April 21 spring game will be crucial in determining their role on the team, and though he won’t be playing the same position where he shined last spring, Davis says he has moved on and is ready to give his all on defense.
“It’s not too hard to give up the dream (of playing running back),” he said. “Because my plan is to excel at whatever position I’m at it, so it doesn’t really matter.”
NOTES: Pinkel said running back Earl Goldsmith, who has sat out the past two practices with a shoulder injury, only has a bruise and could return to practice as early as Tuesday.
Quarterback Chase Patton took several reps with the first-team offense, and J.P. Tillman and Dominic Grooms were given reps with the second team. Pinkel said he will continue to give the backups more reps the rest of the spring in order to determine who will back up Chase Daniel.