CLEMSON — Reasonable minds are cautious about jumping to conclusions based on a single performance against S.C. State. However, it is not beyond reason to believe James “C.J.” Davidson’s story could evolve this season into one of the more compelling on the Clemson football team.
From spring through preseason, his coaches spoke confidently that Davidson, a former track athlete awarded a football scholarship in August, could evolve into a productive option at running back. It seemed unlikely with three more experienced backs and two highly regarded freshmen on the roster.
Rod McDowell, a swift and talented senior with a resume pocked by injury, was the first choice. A 132-yard rushing performance was reassuring, but after a hit in the first half of the S.C. State game, McDowell was pulled as a precaution.
McDowell could be cleared for contact by the weekend, coach Dabo Swinney said this week. Should his status for N.C. State become tenuous, Davidson, a redshirt sophomore, might emerge as a critical component in the run game.
Davidson joined the team almost exactly a year ago after two unfulfilling seasons as a scholarship long jumper on the Clemson track team. Another product of hometown Daniel High’s remarkably fertile athletics program, “C.J.” (Claude Jr. in honor of his grandfather) had grown up watching Clemson football from upper deck seats in Death Valley.
“I knew I always wanted to come to Clemson,” he said. “As a spectator, I knew what it felt like seeing them come down the hill. I wanted to feel it myself.”
At Daniel, he won state championships in track and was a versatile, though unremarkable, player on the football team as a running back, slot receiver and wildcat QB. Kentucky offered a scholarship. TCU said he could jump and play football, which intrigued him until he Googled the distance to Fort Worth.
Davidson decided to remain at home, accept a track scholarship to Clemson and hope for a sign. There didn’t seem to be a place for him on the football team after five-star prospect Mike Bellamy signed but, “I knew I wanted to play football, but I didn’t know it was actually going to happen.”
One of his former high school teammates, DeAndre Hopkins, pressed Davidson to consider football and campaigned Swinney on his behalf.
When Bellamy’s career imploded, Davidson saw the potential for an opening. Hoping football might salve the effects of a discouraging track career, he marched into the office of running backs coach Tony Elliott.
“I told him I was willing to do whatever it takes to play,” he said. “If it takes me waiting, I’ll wait.”
Initially, he began with the scout team, first as a running back then cornerback when injuries last season thinned the secondary.
“He just showed up,” Swinney said. “I didn’t know who he was.”
Swinney was intrigued by the kid from up the street who slid under his radar. Davidson had cameos at running back in two games last season, rushing twice for five yards. After the season, Swinney offered him a choice. Davidson picked running back. Progress during spring practice was followed by an impressive preseason, earning him the scholarship.
“He’s tough, explosive, he’s got long speed. He’s got great lateral quickness. He’s physical. He catches the ball good, and he’s just blue collar, low maintenance,” Swinney said, tiptoeing up to the line without making an absolute comparison to C.J. Spiller. “We’re lucky to have a guy like that to just drop out of the sky.
“He’s as gifted as anybody we’ve got.”
His quickness against S.C. State was not surprising, but the power and decisiveness were a revelation as he rushed for 63 yards on 13 carries. “The main thing was to show them I knew what I was doing.”
There’s a context. A few fundamental responsibilities are required if Davidson is going to be fully trusted in Chad Morris’ scheme.
“We all know what C.J. can do with the ball in his hands. We saw that Saturday,” Morris said. “The thing that C.J. has really got to build on, obviously, it being his first season of football essentially since high school, is knowing what to do when the ball is not in his hands, being able to step up and pass protect.
“You can’t have a missed assignment by a running back in pass protection,” he said. “We can’t have that, so he’s got to work at getting better at the overall knowledge of the offense, but he definitely showed some things the other night.”
Perhaps enough to expand his role?
“Once he understands what he’s doing,” Morris said, “That’s the only things limiting him to come in and play on a consistent level right now.”
“It will come with time.”
Three years ago, McDowell sustained a concussion during a preseason scrimmage that limited him for several weeks. Since the cumulative effects are somewhat a mystery and concussions have become a hot button issue in sports, medical personnel are conditioned to err on the side of caution.
Swinney said McDowell seemed fine at practice this week, though he might not be cleared for contact before the weekend. If Dye had been healthy, he would have been the easiest solution. They hope to redshirt Gallman, so he won’t travel to N.C. State.
For now, Davidson becomes the safety net. Swinney believes “he’s going to be able to help this team.”
All Davidson wanted was an opportunity. First time down the hill in uniform, he looked up to the cheap seats and tears welled.
“With everything that happened, I realized the Lord was not done with me yet,” he said. “It’s been a relief to know that I am in a place where I can be happy again.”