By BEN JOHNSON
Kenneth Davis had a choice. He could either rest his weary knee and redshirt during his first year on campus at Northeastern State, or he could heal up and play right away.
He chose the latter, and he’s benefiting from it now.
Davis, a 5-foot-10, 230-pound freshman linebacker from Star Spencer High School in the Oklahoma City area, will start at inside linebacker when the RiverHawks (0-7, 0-6 MIAA) travel to Warrensburg, Mo., to take on Central Missouri on Saturday at 1:30.
“He’s going to start at linebacker,” NSU head coach Kenny Evans said of Davis, “and we like what he brings to the field with his intensity.”
Davis will be the only freshman starting on defense, but he’ll be one of at least nine freshmen listed on NSU’s depth chart heading into the eighth game of the season.
NSU’s health history has been well-documented this season. The first two games of the season took their toll, losing — among others — starting quarterback Johnny Deaton at Pittsburg State and preseason All-American tailback Joel Rockmore against Missouri Southern. Others have since followed suit: linebacker Jack Gray, safety Victor Johnson, defensive end Cole Johnson, linebacker Colton Nevel, etc.
But perhaps it was Davis’ injury in early August that set the tone for NSU’s health in 2013.
“He tore his knee up in the All-State game,” Evans said of Davis, who competed in the game on Aug. 2 in Tulsa. “At that point, I asked him if we wanted to play in the second half of the season and he said yes.”
After missing the five games of the year, Davis debuted against Missouri Western and had two tackles. He followed that up with five against Eastern New Mexico last week.
Davis will again team up with Langston Jones — the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association’s leader and the nation’s third-best at tackles per game with 13.9 — to try and shut down the Mules (3-4, 2-4), who are led by quarterback Hayden Hawk. The Mules’ 6-foot, 195-pound junior quarterback is second in the MIAA in passing yards per game with 309.3. Boosting Hawk’s per-game average was last week’s contest against Central Oklahoma, in which Hawk was 23 of 26 for 321 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s a very quality quarterback,” Evans said of Hawk, a Coppell, Texas, native who used to troll the sidelines alongside Evans as a youngster when Evans was on the North Texas coaching staff. “Hawks’ dad (Mark) and I are good friends.”
The Mules may have four losses, but those setbacks were by a combined 24 points against Missouri Western, Northwest Missouri State, Missouri Southern and Pittsburg State — all in the top six in the league standings.
“They played Pitt State down to the wire, and they had Northwest Missouri on the ropes,” Evans said of the Mules. “They are another quality football team; that’s what you see in the MIAA every week.”
Northeastern State at Central Missouri
When: Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Audrey J. Walton Stadium in Warrensburg, Mo.
Radio: KTLQ, AM-1350 and live on goriverhawksgo.com.
Nicknames: Northeastern State RiverHawks; Central Missouri Mules.
Coaches: NSU - Kenny Evans (sixth season, 20-42); Central Missouri - Jim Svoboda (fourth season, 28-15).
Records: NSU 0-7 (0-6 MIAA); Central Missouri 3-4 (2-4).
Rankings: Neither team is ranked in Division II football.
Series record: NSU leads 9-0.
Last meeting: The RiverHawks rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat the Mules last season, 24-23, at Doc Wadley Stadium. NSU running back Joel Rockmore, who rushed for 121 yards in the game, scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 19-yard run with 1:54 left. On their final drive, the Mules advanced to NSU’s 43-yard line before turning the ball over on downs.
Last week: Eastern New Mexico 35, NSU 14; Central Missouri 48, Central Oklahoma 16.
News to know: NSU senior defensive back David Lewis will miss the game — and likely the rest of the season — after breaking his foot last week against Eastern New Mexico. ... NSU safety Marquintin Grant — who was carted off the field late in the game against Eastern New Mexico — will now play against Central Missouri after suffering some nerve damage. ... Freshman defensive lineman Reuben Washington will also be out for NSU this week. Washington has some broken bones in his hand and is out at least one week, Evans said. ... NSU reserve linebacker Carson Smallwood is also out after injuring himself in practice this week. ... In the MIAA, NSU ranks last (out of 14 teams) in scoring offense (11.9 points per game), total offense (272.6 yards per game), punt return average (1.8 yards), first downs (16.9 a game) and opponents’ third-down conversions (50 percent). ... In its three wins this season, Central Missouri is averaging 46.3 points per game.
Looking ahead: NSU returns home to take on Southwest Baptist on Nov. 2, while Central Missouri will be at Nebraska Kearney on the same day.