Clemson University

Thunder, Lightning ready to strike again this season

CLEMSON -- They've got the best of both worlds.

A low-charging, bullish runner who can clear any hole for a big gain. A high-stepping, flashy back who can hit the corner and vanish.

James Davis and C.J. Spiller are much more than Clemson's co-starting running backs. They're the heart and soul of the Tigers' offense and more importantly, the hopes and dreams of everyone associated with Clemson football.

Put it this way -- Davis and Spiller do what they're expected, and Clemson has a good, maybe great, year.

No one wants to think about the alternative.

"What can I say?," rebutted coach Tommy Bowden when asked what the two tailbacks meant to his team. "We got a lot of guys on the team who are important, and they're two of them. I'm not going to say they're the most important, but they are certainly extremely important."

The numbers and lists are endless, but all one has to do is look at two totals from 2006. The Tigers posted 5,342 yards and 49 offensive touchdowns last year.

Davis ("Thunder") and Spiller ("Lightning") accounted for 2,450 yards (45.8 percent) and 29 touchdowns (59.1).

The staggering totals make the preseason's other compelling story -- should backup quarterback Willy Korn be playing ahead of starter Cullen Harper -- almost obsolete. With Davis and Spiller handling the load, it really shouldn't matter who the quarterback is.

All the Tigers have to do is find someone who can exist in the three seconds between when he gets the ball and turns to hand off.

Not that the duo is paying any attention to the hype or that scenario. They know as well as anyone that Clemson won't take any chances by simply pounding away with Davis or Spiller on every play.

"I'm fine with sitting every now and then," said Davis, the Tigers' leading rusher for the past two years. "Especially with C.J. here now. He's been a big help."

Right, but do you hear how important you are and how good you're supposed to be?

"I think we are the best," he continued. "But there are still some other teams out there who have great running backs. If you think you're one of the best running backs in the entire nation, then you're probably not.

"But at the same time, you got to go out and shoot for it."

After watching the duo carve opposing defenses to shreds last year, Tiger fans were on the edge of their seats salivating for this season. With Davis and Spiller returning, plus speedster Jacoby Ford at receiver and lauded mobile quarterback Willy Korn in town, Clemson was projected as downright scary-fast.

But then Spiller began saying publicly how homesick he was for his native Florida, where he has a young child. Hinting that he might decide to transfer closer to home, the news was close enough to happening that Urban Meyer, coach of national champion Florida, clammed up when asked if Spiller was going to be a Gator.

Spiller, after talking with Bowden and Davis, decided to return to Clemson. You could hear the Tigers' sigh of relief in Charleston.

"I just fought through it," Spiller explained. "(Davis) told me it was going to be tough but to just stick with it."

Davis offered the confused freshman his advice, gained from his own experience. During his first preseason camp, Davis bolted home to Atlanta for a couple of days.

"I heard he was thinking about being home and being near his child, so I went and talked to him about that situation and then I told him to make the best decision for himself, because that's what it boiled down to," Davis said. "(I said), 'I know everybody wants you to stay, but you got to make the best decision for yourself, where you're going to be happy.'"

Thankfully for Clemson, Spiller and Davis found their paths leading back to the Tigers. And now it's a matter of reclaiming a lost season.

Through their first eight games last year, Clemson could do little wrong. The Tigers were 7-1, the only loss a one-point double-overtime defeat at Boston College where a blocked kick decided the game.

But after that, despite a nation-leading offense, the Tigers fell hard. They only won one of their final five games and saw their chances at a memorable year vanish quicker than Spiller through Wake Forest's punt return coverage.

During the offseason, Davis and Spiller met for workouts and film sessions, seeing what they did wrong and trying to correct it. Spiller also accepted an invitation to run track and earned all-ACC and all-American honors, learning how to build his body without losing speed.

"Running track has helped me refine it," he said. "I'm just trying to put a block on that foundation from last year and keep building."

Davis has also gotten stronger and accepted his big-brother role to Spiller. Although it's not definite that he'll apply, Davis is eligible for the NFL after this year and has already discussed the process with Bowden.

"It's always crossed my mind," he said. "If I can come back another year and help this team and better myself in the rounds, then I'm going to do whatever to help my team and also have a chance to graduate."

In the meantime, he's helping Spiller. The dynamic freshman was terrific last year but Davis is teaching him to pace himself.

"We always eat together. Always calling each other. We watched film together," Spiller said. "He's a great friend. Whenever I need advice, I can always go to him. That's just the type of person he is."

And together, they're keeping the goal of staying healthy and productive ahead of them. Each had bruises and bangups last year, although neither missed a game, and this year could be more hectic.

Clemson lost its third-string tailback, Ray Ray McElrathbey, to a torn ACL in preseason camp. Behind him, there's only converted safety Sadat Chambers and little-used fullback Paul Macko. With scarce depth and knowing defenses won't be fooled by Davis and Spiller this year, Clemson's coaching staff is having to find ways to keep its two best horses running all year.

"Keep fresh legs at the running back position, that's our main goal," Spiller said. "We can feed off each other and let each other know what's happening in the game."

"I don't think it will be a problem," Davis said. "We know what we have to do and what we're expected to do. We're the legs, so we have to keep running."