Ryan Wood and Michael Cohen talk about the Green Bay Packers' roster moves and newly promoted running back Don Jackson. (Oct. 25, 2016) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY - A green-and-gold stocking cap covers Knile Davis’ ears as he meanders through a foreign locker room. Life still swirls around him, head spinning. Two weeks ago, he was stuck in a dead-end job, buried on another team’s depth chart.
Now, a fresh start.
Davis takes a seat inside his new cubbyhole. He’s stationed near Eddie Lacy and James Starks, reminding him why he’s here. Over the past year, this locker has played musical chairs with Packers running backs. John Crockett once dressed in this corner. Before Crockett, it was Alonzo Harris.
In the quiet, Davis absorbs his surroundings. Teammates are back from an extended weekend. Some scurry in and out of meetings. Others walk toward the team cafeteria.
Davis sits and reflects. Asked about the difficulty of switching teams midseason, he leans forward in his locker.
“It’s just like any other situation where you’re not familiar with what surrounds you,” he says. “It’s an uncomfortable position at first, but it’s something that you’ve got to get used to. As the weeks go on, I’ll get used to it."
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It’s familiar terrain in Davis’ zig-zag life. The 25-year-old running back has faced more ups and downs than the Himalayas. He’s used to being uncomfortable.
Davis escaped a rough Houston suburb to become a college football star, enrolling early at Arkansas in part because it was safer. He learned to cope with humbling position changes, devastating injuries. He has had even worse pain off the field.
Davis was bedside when the man who trained him after football practices as a kid, stepdad Warren Morgan, died from lung cancer in 2009. A month later, Davis played his first game at Arkansas with a hole in his heart.
So, no, a midseason trade doesn’t faze him. Adversity? It bounces off Davis like broken tackles.
“I’ve pretty much been through everything,” Davis says. “In a sense, I’m numb to life now. Because I just understand it’s going to be a lot of things that come your way, a lot of obstacles to overcome. So I have that mindset. Once something comes to me, I know how to deal with it.”
Almost clinically, Davis dissects every situation. He separates good from bad, pondering both sides.
Then he settles on a perspective half full, not half empty.
No different with this move to the Packers, Davis says. Yes, the start of one chapter means the end to another. His three-plus seasons in Kansas City were forgettable, if not regrettable. In Green Bay, he has a chance to wipe the slate clean. A fresh start.
Davis knows he needed one.
When the Chiefs lost Jamaal Charles to a torn anterior cruciate ligament last October, survival mode kicked in. There’s no replacing a superstar. No, Davis wasn’t delusional. But he expected the chance to try.
Davis was drafted in the third round for moments like these. The Chiefs had their workhorse in Charles. They needed a complementary piece, some backfield depth.
With Charles on injured reserve, it was Davis’ turn to step into a lead role. Instead, he didn’t carry the football more than five times in a game. He dropped on the depth chart behind an undrafted tailback (Charcandrick West) and sixth rounder (Spencer Ware), mostly because the Chiefs didn’t trust him as a blocker or receiver. He also struggled with fumbles.
The demotions hit harder than any linebacker.
“Of course I wanted to fill that role,” Davis says, “but they felt differently. So I can only control the things that I can control. At first, yeah, I wanted to play.”
It wasn’t the first time football disappointed him.
Davis was recruited to play running back at Arkansas, but moved to fullback as a college freshman. With a 4.38-second dash, he was perhaps the fastest lead blocker in college football.
It didn’t take Davis long to find his rhythm. Soon, NFL stardom seemed etched in stone. He led all SEC running backs in rushing yards as a sophomore in 2010, second overall in the conference behind only Cam Newton.
Davis was a Heisman Trophy hopeful entering his junior season. The centerpiece for Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino’s offense. It didn’t last long.
Tim Horton, Arkansas’ former running backs coach, can’t forget the first fall scrimmage of 2011. Earlier in the week, Horton recalls, coaches discussed playing time before agreeing to treat their first scrimmage like an NFL preseason opener. Starters would get one series, no more.
The Razorbacks opened with a three-and-out, Horton says. He remembers Petrino being ticked with the lack of production. To start their second series, he demanded starters go back out on the field.
Horton asked if his boss meant Davis as well.
Yes, Petrino said, him too.
“So we put Knile in,” Horton remembers, “and he gets hurt about two plays into the second series, and breaks his ankle and does not play that season. We missed him for the whole year.”
It was one of five times Davis broke his ankle, he says. His injury history also includes two broken collarbones.
Davis tried to recapture the national attention when he returned the next fall. He once again received preseason Heisman hype, but his rushing total cratered from 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010, to 377 yards and two touchdowns in 2012. Horton credits regression in Arkansas’ offensive line. Pro scouts wondered if Davis had the same explosion after ankle surgery.
On draft night, Davis slipped to the end of the third round. Midway through his rookie contract, Davis continued slipping — this time down the Chiefs’ depth chart.
Horton, now a running backs coach at Auburn, remembers a phone call before the Chiefs' wild-card playoff game at the Houston Texans last January. It came late at night — sometime after 10 p.m., Horton says — while he drove up to Gatlinburg, Tenn., for a football clinic.
Davis needed to vent. He’d spent the week fielding ticket requests from family — he had 34 people in the stands, Davis says — before returning to his hometown. A lot of people, Davis thought, who might see him play no meaningful role in the game.
Make a splash on special teams, Horton told him.
Later that week, Davis received the opening kickoff six yards deep in the end zone. He hit a hole to his left, found open field. By the time Davis reached his own 30, it was clear he had a touchdown.
Suddenly, Davis was the toast of two cities.
“Oh, they loved it, man,” Davis says. “They loved it. I got a lot of love from my social media, and just from being around Kansas City. A lot of people remember that, and also back home. Because it was against the Texans. So everybody back home saw it. So it was just a memorable moment for myself, and the fans.”
Horton got another call this week. This time, Davis didn’t need to vent.
He was in a study break, cramming for his debut against the Chicago Bears, when Davis dialed his old college coach. He wanted Horton to know how much he was enjoying Green Bay.
“Coach,” Horton recalled Davis saying, “I love it here.”
Horton isn’t surprised. His first thought after hearing about the trade? Schematically, Horton says, it could be the perfect place for Davis to get his career back on track.
It helps that Davis is with a team that needs running backs. Lacy is on injured reserve, and Starks is recovering from knee surgery. Right now, the most experienced players in the Packers’ backfield are wide receivers.
But Horton also knows coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. At Arkansas, he says, Petrino’s staff would watch film of the Packers’ zone-blocking scheme. He thinks it’s a perfect system for Davis.
“Knile is a one-cut, north-and-south-type runner,” Horton says. “He’s got good speed. I wouldn’t say he’s got elite speed, but he’s going to stick his foot in the ground, and he’s going to run hard and tough. He’s not going to sit there and dance.
“He’s a one-cut, north-and-south guy who’s probably going to break a tackle before he’s going to make somebody miss, and he can break tackles.”
Davis dissects his time in Kansas City like anything else: good and bad.
No, he didn’t play much. In his first three seasons, Davis averaged fewer than five carries per game. But he only missed two games. In his fourth season, Davis is running on fresh legs.
He should get a bigger role in the Packers' backfield, starting Sunday in Atlanta. Davis said he expects to have "a package" of plays, but doesn't know yet what they'll be. No matter, all he wants now is to capitalize on this second chance.
“In Kansas City,” Davis says, “the bad was I didn’t get to play. The positive was I stayed healthy, and I’m here now. I’ve done what I can. I’m settled in. I’ve got a lot to learn, but I’ll be ready to go."