North Carolina running back Daniel Davis's philosophy of life is simple. "Don't take anything for granted," said the freshman from Brooke Point High School.
His first collegiate season has been an excellent example of that. Not much has worked out for Davis the way it was supposed to. With just five games to go--beginning with today's game at Maryland--Davis has not had many carries, and North Carolina has no Atlantic Coast Conference victories.
And Davis's numbers won't improve today. A sprained ankle will keep him out of his third straight contest, what would have been a homecoming game of sorts in front of family and friends. It's enough to make Davis start looking ahead.
"We're not supposed to talk about next year," he said. "But that's basically what we're doing, just getting ready for next year."
At 1-5 overall and 0-4 in the ACC entering today's game at Byrd Stadium, North Carolina is off to its worst start since going 1-10 in 1989. And Davis's season hasn't gone much better.
Highly recruited out of Brooke Point--where the 5-11, 215-pounder rushed for 2,039 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior en route to being named the state player of the year and The Post's All-Met offensive player of the year--Davis chose North Carolina over Virginia and Maryland and came here with high hopes for an impact season.
"Most freshmen come in here timid and scared," fullback Deon Dyer said shortly after Davis's arrival. "But he came in really wanting to be a leader on this team. That's a real credit to him."
Said Coach Carl Torbush: "Daniel has shown some outstanding athletic ability. I don't feel like he's backed down to the competition one bit. He gives great effort. If he stays healthy, I really do believe he'll be a fine football player."
But injuries are not the only thing that has slowed Davis, who has rushed for 159 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries.
After the freshman wowed the coaching staff in preseason practice--running for 177 yards and four touchdowns on just 17 carries in two intrasquad scrimmages--Torbush said Davis would play in the season opener against Virginia. But Davis was in for only one play and did not carry the ball in a 20-17 loss. Torbush later admitted that he made a mistake by not using Davis more and would make it up to him the next week at Indiana.
"Daniel Davis should have played," Torbush said at the time. "There are no excuses. We should have got him in the game."
In the week before the Indiana game, Davis was stricken by an ulcer in his eye and had to miss a couple of practices. It was feared he might not be able to play. Special protective goggles arrived at the team hotel the morning of the game, and Davis went out and rushed for 77 yards on 13 carries in North Carolina's only win of the season, 42-30.
"I don't want to put the other backs down, but once they [the coaches] saw my speed, they had to commit more to me," Davis said of his performance against the Hoosiers.
Torbush acknowledged that Davis's presence changed that game. "He made some plays and opened things up," the coach said.
Davis was ready to improve upon that performance in North Carolina's next game against Florida State, but a toothache and subsequent extraction of a wisdom tooth caused more missed practice time. He still rushed for 49 yards on 10 carries against the vaunted Seminoles' defense in a 42-10 loss.
The next week, a 31-20 loss at Clemson, Davis rushed for 33 yards on 10 carries--including his first collegiate touchdown--before getting injured.
Davis is not the only North Carolina player to see his season go awry this year. Starting quarterback Ronald Curry, like Davis a Virginia native, is out for the season and probably will miss all of basketball season after rupturing his Achilles' tendon. Linebacker Brandon Spoon also is out for the season with an injury, and Curry's backup, Luke Huard, may not be able to play today because of an injury that forced Torbush to turn to defensive back Antwon Black as his No. 1 quarterback in practice this week.
The injuries have taken a toll on the Tar Heels, who will see their streak of seven consecutive bowl games come to an end if they lose another game.
Davis's loss seems especially damaging given that the Tar Heels are averaging just 155.8 rushing yards a game--fifth in the ACC--and that Davis leads regular North Carolina tailbacks with an average of 4.8 yards a carry--sixth in the conference.
Last week against Houston, North Carolina rushed for 39 yards on 30 carries in a 20-12 loss that had the fans calling for the firing of Torbush and offensive coordinator Steve Marshall.
Davis has done his best to stay positive, saying, "The biggest thing now is just to support the team and be the best positive influence I can be." But he couldn't completely conceal his frustration, saying one of the reasons he came to North Carolina was for the opportunity to play right away.
"Coach says I need a lot more repetitions," Davis said. "But I can't get the repetitions without playing. I feel like I've done good things when I've gotten the ball."
Still, he believes he made the right decision in choosing North Carolina.
"I felt very comfortable here on my visit and still do," he said. "That was a big consideration for me, to come to a place that felt like home. It's been a very smooth transition. The hardest thing is getting yourself to study in your free time. If you can do that, you'll have no problem here."
CAPTION: Running back Daniel Davis, last season's Post All-Met offensive player of the year, is trying to keep his spirits up through injury-filled freshman year.
CAPTION: "We're not supposed to talk about next year. But that's basically what we're doing, just getting ready for next year."-- Daniel Davis