Oct. 18, 2007
By Bucky Berlin
Shouts and whistles can be heard from the football practice field; orange and white jerseys can be seen flashing between the gaps in the fence and narrow tree line. The temperature has barely crested 80 degrees as the sunlight begins to dissipate on the Wednesday afternoon. A final horn sounds, and within minutes, players begin making the trek over to the locker rooms at the Jervey Athletic Center. The day’s work is done.
Between packs of Tigers walks a lone player; a 5’11” running back wearing the #1 jersey is trailed by a young fan. As he prepares to cross the street that divides the parking lot, James Davis stops, takes off his gloves, and hands them to the waiting admirer. With the exchange completed, the child runs off, clinching his newfound prize, and then Davis shifts his helmet between his hands as he continues the walk up the red-brick drive.
Tabbed the ACC Rookie-of-the-Year in 2005, his freshman year consisted of 879 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. In his first-ever game and season-opener against #17 Texas A&M, he gained 101 yards on 19 carries en route to the victory. The 101 yards were the most by a Tiger first-year freshman in his first game since Bobby Gage rushed for 144 yards against Presbyterian in 1945.
A broken wrist just one play into the second half at N.C. State would force him to miss the rest of that game and all but one play of the next, but not before he piled up 143 yards on just 12 carries. Wearing a cast on his wrist the next four games, he ran over #19 South Carolina with 145 yards and a touchdown to earn ACC Offensive Back-of-the-Week honors. The MVP of the Champs Sports Bowl, Davis stacked up 150 yards and found the endzone once against Colorado, becoming the only back to go over 100 yards on the Buffaloes the entire season.
In 2006, Davis was named First-Team All-ACC after gaining 1,187 yards on the ground and scoring 17 touchdowns for the season. He took his game to a new level when he thrashed #13 Georgia Tech at home on national television for 216 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
That night also made his name synonymous with another player, #28 C.J. Spiller, who had 116 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards with two touchdowns on the night. The duo, known as “Thunder & Lightning” to some and “Superman & Flash” to others, would go on to combine for 2,125 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground in 2006.
“It’s a pretty good feeling to have running backs like James Davis and Barry Richardson said about the performance against the Yellow Jackets. “When you have two backs making plays like they did tonight, it makes us tough to beat.”
A game that should not be overlooked in Davis’ portfolio was his performance at #9 Florida State last year. With the score tied 20-20 in the last series of regulation, the Tiger offense caught the Seminoles off-guard, and Davis rumbled 47 yards down to Florida State’s four yard-line.
“It was wide open,” Davis said of the big gain. “No one was there.”
“We caught them not getting lined up and broke a big play,” said Head Coach Tommy Bowden.
“When we got down there, we were in a situation to win the game, and two plays before the score, we went on a quick snap,” said former tight end Thomas Hunter. “James just took off down the sideline and outran some guys.
“We called a timeout before the game-winning play, and when we were running out onto the field, I said `James…follow me, let’s go to the endzone…let’s get back to Clemson’.”
With eight seconds left on the clock, Davis followed two blockers into the endzone for his second score and the game-winner, putting the Tigers up 27-20. Hunter and fullback Alex Pearson can be seen on film making a crushing block that literally flipped a Seminole defender upside down.
Davis opened this season making a mockery of Florida State again when several defenders could not bring him down on a 29-yard touchdown run in the first half. A big performance by both Davis and Spiller at N.C. State seemed to sound a triumphant return to the form of last year’s rushing duo, with each back totaling over 100 yards on the ground along with rushing and receiving touchdowns.
“He has unbelievable vision,” said Hunter of Davis. “It makes you want to block so much harder when you have a guy that you can give him one little crack and he can make a cut and make someone look stupid and break some tackles.”
Through six games this year, Davis has carried the ball 76 times for 463 yards and four touchdowns in addition to a receiving score. His 6.1 yards per carry is best in the ACC among starting running backs. His 2,529 career rushing yards to date are seventh-most in school history. With 30 touchdowns on the ground, he is tied for third with Fred Cone for career rushing touchdowns. Two more touchdowns will move him into second place in Tiger history.
“I want to be one of the best-known running backs in Clemson history,” said Davis. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to create some records or break some records. I’ll try to leave a mark.”
But in Davis’ mind, all the records in the world may be a moot point compared to winning an ACC or National Championship.
“I want to be able to win a championship,” stated Davis. “I haven’t won a championship since little league football. That’s what I’m trying to put into my team’s head. I know a lot of guy’s on the team haven’t accomplished a championship yet…I think that would be great for the team.”
“He wants to put Clemson back on the map with an ACC title, and that just shows what kind of a good guy he is,” added Hunter.
Born on New Year’s Day of 1986, Davis grew up in a rough neighborhood in downtown Atlanta, GA. His mother gets the credit for keeping him straight.
“I just kept him busy,” said Theresa Davis. “He was always a good boy.”
His high school coach (Gary Cantrell) shared the same sentiment. “He was soft spoken, not one of these heady guys,” said Cantrell. “He was a very down-to-earth kid.”
Davis also credits an earlier coach with much of his development. “My little league coach, he was kind of like a dad to me,” admitted Davis. “He coached me all the way up…he led me in the right direction. I thank him for a lot of my successes.”
He donned black and gold as an Astro at Douglass High School, a football powerhouse since its opening. It was not hard to attract attention from colleges with a resumé that comprised 7,339 career yards and 80 touchdowns.
“My impression was that he was definitely one of the best backs I had ever seen,” responded Cantrell when asked about Davis’ early football career.
Davis finished with 2,389 yards and 28 touchdowns on 350 carries for the AAAAA program as a senior. The offers poured in from Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana State, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Virginia Tech. In an effort to get an arms-length away from Atlanta, he chose Clemson to continue his football career and earn a college degree.
“Clemson was a more unique school,” said Davis. “I felt at home at Clemson, and plus I wasn’t too far from home; I was only two hours away.”
“It had been tough to convince a back that we were dedicated to running the football,” said Bowden on recruiting Davis. “We recruited him under the pretense that he would be at the right place at the right time. I’ve been amazed at how well he has handled the success. He’s really done well. He’s a good student, and he has does things he’s suppose to off the field. He’s a good leader as well.”
Being the soft-spoken individual that he is, Davis has had to work at becoming a more vocal leader. With urging from the coaching staff, he opted to stay in Clemson over the past summer to train.
“I’ve improved a lot as far as leadership roles,” said Davis. “Like my demeanor this year, I just want to win a lot of games. That’s what I’m trying to get all my guys to focus on…we can win games and we can go a long way.”
Anyone at the spring scrimmages could tell he was already in gear for 2007. Even to the smallest crowds he would pump his arms in the air to try and get some excitement brewing. Known for his readiness to interact with fans and media, he is also known for his willingness to lend a hand to friends and teammates around campus. Hunter always appreciated it when Davis stopped to give him a ride when he spotted Hunter waiting at the bus stop.
“He’s not somebody who’s going to look down on anybody because of who they are or where they came from,” said Hunter, who also commented on Davis’ reputation around campus. “He really does a great job of exemplifying a student-athlete. You never hear of him getting in trouble or getting bad grades in school, because he understands the total package. He’s an awesome guy.”
Perhaps one of his biggest contributions in demonstrating his leadership was the public endorsement of recruiting Spiller, who quickly became a friend and understudy to Davis after arriving on campus. The results were obvious. Spiller gained 938 rushing yards and a team-best 1,415 all-purpose yards in 2006, contributing 12 total touchdowns and leading the team with five 100-yard rushing games.
“One of the things we talked about when he was being recruited is that you don’t want to go somewhere where you’re the single back,” said Cantrell. “You’re going to get `killed.’ There’s only so much pounding one person can take.”
During a trivial time in which Spiller was rumored to be considering a transfer to Florida, Davis provided friendly encouragement to his teammate. “I told him you’ve got to step up and make this decision on your own and be a man about it,” said Davis. “I told him I loved him and wanted to be there for him. He made the best decision by staying here.”
With his sidekick’s immediate future in line, Davis does have his own to think about. Many have projected him as a high draft pick if he were to opt out of his senior year for the NFL. After watching Gaines Adams return for his senior season and end up being drafted #4 overall this past April, it may be in his best interest to stay. Finishing his degree is also a top priority.
“I would probably be the first one in my family to graduate from college, and Gaines Adams was the same way,” remarked Davis. “Right now, coming back is what I’m leaning towards doing. The only way I will come out right now is if I’m projected in the top 10. I looked at it, and I’ll probably be the top running back coming out my senior year.”
A return for a strong senior season would be beneficial for Davis and the Tigers, who would gladly use his leadership and skill-set. In turn, his transition to pro football may be that much more glorious.
As for what he will do in life after football? “I’ll probably coach…I think every player has got it in his mind that maybe he’ll want to go out and coach.”
But for right now, Davis is concentrating on 2007 and finishing the job, hopefully with a trip to the ACC Championship game in Jacksonville, FL on December 1.
“He’s a competitor, there’s no other way to put it,” added Hunter. “He plays through pain. He’s definitely not out there for himself, he’s out there to win the game for Clemson. That’s one thing that you like to see when you have a guy with his talent that really loves the school and likes the fans and wants to go out there and win. He’s going to be successful on the football field or off the football field, wherever it takes him.”
Bucky Berlin, a senior from Jamestown, NC, is a sportswriter for Clemson’s student newspaper, The Tiger.
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