“What If Wednesday” keeps rolling on, and this week we’re taking a look at an unfortunate injury that took place in 1999 that altered the course of the season for Miami, and the career one of their players.
Week one in 99, the Hurricanes are playing Ohio State at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Head coach Butch Davis is in his fifth year with Miami, and his 12th ranked Canes are gearing up for what could be a special season and a possible return to dominance in Coral Gables.
One of the strengths for the Canes going into their matchup with the Buckeyes is their depth at running back, particularly with James Jackson and Najeh Davenport. Behind 102 yards from Jackson plus an additional 81 from Davenport, the Hurricanes grinded out a 23-12 victory over the ninth-ranked Buckeyes.
However, Davenport suffered a tear in his acl and lcl, which would sideline him for the rest of the season.
Following the game and knowing the extent of Davenport’s injury, running backs coach Don Soldinger told fellow coach Art Kehoe, “we just lost a national championship losing him.” When Davenport came to Miami, he was supposed to be next great running back, the predecessor to Edgerrin James.
So, that beckons me to peg the question, what if Davenport wasn’t injured during that game?
Let’s start off with the 1999 season. Now that Davenport is healthy, Miami’s established themselves as a possible title contender thanks to one of the most dominant rushing attacks in the country, after grinding out nearly 200 yards running the football against Ohio State.
A win in week one jumps the Canes to eighth in the country, and following a victory the next Saturday, Miami hosts third-ranked Penn State in the Orange Bowl. Holding onto a 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter, the Hurricanes are able to pick up critical first downs and run out of the clock, instead of being held to just 103 yards on the ground and losing 23-27.
The victory over Penn State moves Miami even higher in the polls and possibly a top-five ranking. The following week, against a scrappy East Carolina team, again the same situation, if you have a big body like Davenport whose able to close out games, maybe you don’t have the Pirates drive down and score a game-winning touchdown.
What made Davenport so dangerous and valuable as a running back was his tremendous combination of size and speed. Weighing in around the 240-pound range, Davenport was significantly bigger than Jackson as well as fellow back Clinton Portis. In the game against Ohio State, it was Davenport’s big body that was able to churn out critical first downs to secure the win. When the Hurricanes faced Penn State and East Carolina, Miami’s smaller running backs weren’t able to do the same damage, which resulted in the offense having to punt the ball away.
Back to 1999. If Davenport doesn’t get hurt, I do think the season changes dramatically. I don’t think Miami is winning a national championship like coach Soldinger said, but I do believe the Canes beat Penn State and East Carolina. Then if you look to the game against Florida State, the Hurricanes lost 31-21, but also only gained 78 yards rushing, their lowest total of the season. Also, the Canes and Noles were tied at 21 heading into the second half of that game. So, with that rushing attack of Jackson and Davenport, plus a sprinkle of Portis as well, Miami takes that game in Tallahassee and is now sitting pretty at 5-0 and possibly ranked one or two in the polls.
Moving on later in the year, I do think that the Hurricanes still lose at Blacksburg against the Hokies. Losing 43-10, it’s hard to say that Davenport would’ve been the difference. Still, Miami finishes the 1999 regular season with an 11-1 record. Still maintaining a top-10 ranking at the end of the regular season, the Canes play in the Orange Bowl against Alabama, and obviously win.
Still injury free, Davenport never makes the change to fullback as he did later in his Miami career. Becoming the next Edgerrin James, Davenport develops into one of the greatest running backs in the history of the program. Still sharing and dominating the backfield with Jackson in 2000, the Hurricanes rattle off a national championship. After Jackson leaves following 2000, Davenport is the main starter at running back in 2001, and has a season similar to Willis McGahee’s in 2002, plus helping Miami win another title.
Now, looking at his teammates on Miami and the RB’s behind him, their story might’ve turned out a little bit different. Without a blocker like Davenport paving the way in 2001 for Clinton Portis, what’s the end deal in his career at Miami? He’d be the starter in 2002 after Najeh left, but is he still the same player that turned into a second-round draft pick? Does Frank Gore still suffer his injury (another “What If” topic) and does McGahee turn out the same?
In the 2002 NFL Draft, now that injuries aren’t plaguing him, Davenport is selected in the first round and possibly goes in the top-10, instead of falling all the way to the fourth round. Maybe the Browns take him with the 16th pick instead of Willie Green, or the Falcons snag him at 18 instead of T.J. Duckett. Perhaps we’re talking about Warrick Dunn and a healthy Najeh Davenport, plus Michael Vick at quarterback for the Falcons, and the NFC could be looking completely different!
Even with an injury-filled past, Davenport was still able to carve out a solid NFL career. However, if he’s able to stay healthy, we’re looking at an entirely different player.