Gameday: Davis leads Clemson into battle

pstrelow@thestate.comAugust 30, 2008 

James Davis

The symmetry of the moment might not dawn on Clemson running back James Davis, but the man’s impact will.

It has been more than a year since Davis last spoke to Alabama running backs coach Burton Burns, the former Tigers assistant who was instrumental in luring him to Death Valley.

The 2005 signing of the Atlanta native might have been the jumping-off point for Clemson’s recent recruiting success.

Yet if Davis had followed through with his initial commitment to Alabama, he would have played his final two seasons under Burns instead of his first two.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing coach Burns on the field beforehand,” Davis said as the Tigers prepare for today’s opener against No. 24 Alabama in his hometown. “If it wasn’t for coach Burns, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

“Here” being Clemson, where Davis enters his senior season within reach of the program’s career rushing yardage and touchdown records.

He needs 837 yards to surpass Raymond Priester as the rushing leader (3,966, 1994-97) and six touchdowns would allow him to surpass Travis Zachery’s mark (41, 1998-2001).

Davis might have been one influential conversation away from going somewhere else.

Davis, rated the nation’s No. 6 back as a senior at Douglass High, visited Alabama the second weekend of January 2005, about three weeks before signing day.

He also was considering Clemson and Virginia Tech. But Davis felt peer pressure to head to the SEC, where Douglass teammates Roderick Battle (Georgia), Brandon Sesay (Georgia) and Jason Alexander (Kentucky) were headed.

“My high school coaches thought I was an SEC-caliber running back, and just going and playing those powerhouses — it was just about our reputation, we’re going to the SEC,” Davis said. “That’s the talk around Georgia. It’s the toughest conference. I wanted to play in the SEC; that was my whole thing.”

He committed to then-Crimson Tide coach Mike Shula and running backs coach Sparky Woods, but upon returning from his visit, he spent more than an hour on the phone with Burns, with whom he and his mother, Theresa, had developed a close rapport since Davis’ ninth-grade year. Davis said Burns was understanding of his commitment but asked Davis to visit Clemson’s campus the next weekend.

Theresa suggested there was no harm in it, and if Alabama believed Davis’ commitment, it should not feel threatened either.

She misjudged.

“My mom came with me, and I asked her (about her preference) at the end of the visit — I liked both of them — but she immediately said Clemson,” Davis said. “I asked her why, and she said she felt at home. Fans knew you no matter where you went. That meant a lot to us. Then I brought my whole family up here for a tour. And when they saw the stadium, they were blown away.”

So Davis disclosed his intentions to Alabama’s coaches, who held a commitment from three-star running back Glen Coffee.

The Crimson Tide responded by turning their attention to two other four-star backs. They snatched USC target Mike Ford — who failed to qualify and wound up at South Florida — and corralled a late commitment from Roy Upchurch.

Coincidentally, Coffee enters this season as Alabama’s starter after serving as a backup last season. Upchurch has fallen to fourth string.

“When I thought about it, I thought I should just go somewhere where I’m going to be happy and play and not worry about the conference and all that,” Davis said.

“So at the end of the day, I feel I’ve made the right decision.”

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