Davis brothers traverse USC/Clemson rivalry

Special to The StateNovember 28, 2013 

— Cut from the same bolt, the comparisons were unavoidable.

Now they’re mandatory for James Davis, the former Clemson running back, and little brother Mike Davis of South Carolina.

“I think they’re very similar,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, an assistant on Tommy Bowden’s staff during most of James’ career (2005- 2008). “Mike’s a little thicker, but both of them are powerful. Both run through tackles. Mike might be a little bit faster overall, but both of them have that innate ability to create yards when there isn’t anything there.”

James Davis, “Thunder” to C.J. Spiller’s “Lightning” finished No. 2 in career rushing yardage at Clemson (3,881) and first in rushing touchdowns (47).

“James got off to a little bit better start as a freshman, had a little more opportunity,” Swinney said. “We’ll see how (Mike) finishes up, but he’s on track, and it will be interesting to see which one will have bragging rights when those boys get together.”

Understudy as a freshman until Marcus Lattimore’s injury, Mike Davis averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year. This season, he’s been South Carolina’s most dependable back. Seven times in 10 games, he rushed for more than 100 yards. His 1,112 yards place him second in the SEC and 20th nationally in yards, 16th in yards per game. His total is sixth best in Carolina history, 85 yards from Lattimore at No. 3.

He has four runs of 50 yards or more, including a pair of 75-yarders against North Carolina and Georgia.

“I was watching Florida, I think, and they ran this power play,” Swinney said. “They got him tackled for a loss, a Florida defensive lineman, and he just ran right through it and it’s a big play. Those are the things that frustrate the heck out of you.”

James, seven years older, kept a paternal eye on his brother. It was James who suggested that Mike be given a chance to run with the ball rather than block. When Mike decided on South Carolina, it was James who led the defense.

On game days, James usually can be found in the same stadium with Mike. And though blood may be thicker than water, his brother’s choice did not dilute James’ ties to Clemson — though it may have strained them a bit.

During Mike Davis’ recruitment, it seemed curious that Clemson was not atop his list of favorites. He had traveled to Clemson frequently to see his brother play and was a known commodity to the Clemson staff.

Tennessee and South Carolina offered first. Mike committed to South Carolina even though James wanted him at Clemson. When plans for a visit to Clemson shortly before signing day were clipped; James vented on Twitter, blaming Swinney.

Two weeks later Mike signed with South Carolina and the issue became moot.

Reporters at Clemson loved James Davis. His smile and manner were easy, and he seldom pulled punches. James would lean against one of the headstones near the practice field and talk as long as there were questions. Then he signed autographs in the parking lot.

Days into his first week of practice at Clemson, James wondered if he made a mistake. Georgia Tech and Auburn had recruited him out of Douglass High in Atlanta, and Davis considered a quick transfer, feeling he had not been afforded a fair shot to win a starting job ahead of three upperclassmen. He returned to Atlanta.

Bowden claimed James was “homesick.” Davis smiled and publicly contradicted his coach without fear of reproach. Two days later, he was back. By the fifth game, he was a starter.

The storm passed, but “Thunder” rumbled for four seasons.

Days before a Maryland game in 2007, he guaranteed a win, “no hesitation.” Davis rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown in a 30-17 win in College Park, then swore off guarantees.

After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Davis left for Florida intending to prepare for the NFL draft a year early. A phone call from Spiller changed his mind, so he turned around and began the drive back to Clemson, stopping in Georgia long enough to fax an affidavit to the NFL that removed his name from the draft.

James frequently played through injury, coming back quickly from a fractured wrist that ended a brilliant start at N.C. State. A shoulder injury requiring surgery before his senior season was a precursor to the season’s tumult.

In October, he broke down in tears after Bowden resigned. Despite Swinney’s efforts, the season ended in deep disappointment, salvaged by the most recent Clemson win against South Carolina. Davis finished 86 yards short of the school’s career rushing record.

Drafted in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns in 2006, he used a chunk of his bonus for a down payment on a house that would get his family out of inner-city Atlanta.

Mike had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at Stephenson High in Stone Mountain. As a sophomore at Carolina, he’s a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back.

“Davis is a terrific runner,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, likening him to another former Clemson back, “probably a little bit stronger than Andre Ellington with that kind of explosiveness and that ability to take it to the house at any time.”

Carolina did not make Mike available this week for interviews. James did not return calls, texts or emails. So it’s left to Swinney for the final word on which is — or could be — the better back.

“He’s on his way to being every bit as good,” Swinney said of Mike, “And James Davis was a special player.”

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