Clemson stars look to shine at home

Published 4:20 pm Friday, August 29, 2008

CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson star James Davis has never won in his hometown of Atlanta.

Davis says there’s no better time to end that streak than Saturday night when the ninth-ranked Tigers game with No. 24 Alabama at the Georgia Dome.

“We haven’t had a lot of success there, but I love going back,” Davis said. “It gives us a chance to prove ourselves.”

That’s something Davis, who played at Atlanta’s Douglass High School, and fellow Tiger stars quarterback Cullen Harper and receiver Aaron Kelly — both from cities close to Atlanta — have tried to accomplish for several seasons.

As a freshman, Davis and the Tigers lost 10-9 at Georgia Tech. Davis had been the team’s leading rusher, but got just one yard because of a broken wrist.

Last year, Davis returned to face Tech, this time as the “Thunder” of Clemson’s “Thunder and Lightning” backfield. But the Yellow Jackets prevailed 13-3 and limited Davis to 60 yards rushing.

Clemson and Davis got another chance during bowl season, playing Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in front of many family members and friends at the Georgia Dome. He scored a touchdown and went over 1,000 yards for the second straight year after gaining 72, but still the Tigers lost 23-20 in overtime.

Davis didn’t get much help from Clemson’s other Atlanta-reared standouts.

Kelly, from Marietta, Ga., caught four passes for 36 yards. Harper, from Alpharetta, Ga., did not throw a TD pass after connecting for a school record 27 during the regular season.

“Definitely, playing in the Georgia Dome is a big time game,” Davis said. “We’ve just got to be ready.”

C.J. Spiller, Davis’ backfield partner, expects the Tigers’ seniors to come prepared in their final chance at home.

“They never won there,” Spiller said. “I’m pretty sure in their last year they want to get a win in Atlanta.”

Alabama and second-year coach Nick Saban will try and make that difficult, but the Crimson Tide realize what they’re up against in Clemson.

Alabama center Antoine Caldwell said he’s prepped for the Tigers since April.

“Every time I watch film, I realize another guy stands out,” he said. “They do a good job and we are going to have to be on our ‘A’ game.”

For Saban, that’ll mean finishing games better than the Tide did a year ago when they started 6-2 and finished the regular season with four straight losses.

Saban knows the test his players will face against Clemson. But “it’s really more about finding out who we are and where we’ve got to go to get to where we want to be,” he said.

Davis wasn’t sure he’d make this game, declaring for the NFL last winter before changing his mind. Winning in Atlanta is minor among the list of lofty goals Davis thinks about, such as Atlantic Coast Conference and national titles.

“We ain’t at the top yet,” Davis said. “We got a bullseye with teams looking at us. But hey, we’re looking up, too.”

The Crimson Tide want plenty more teams looking up at them this year, too. They’ll bring a young team into the Dome and probably show off their most talked about prospects in receiver Julio Jones. Saban said Jones has worked hard throughout fall camp to earn his spot.

“I think probably after the first scrimmage it was pretty evident that he was going to have some role as one of the three receivers that we use quite a bit,” the coach said.

Clemson comes in as the favorite to win the ACC title. A loss Saturday won’t damage that goal, although Harper knows it’ll ruin the team’s higher dreams.

“We want to get Clemson on the map and let people know that we’re legit, we’re serious,” Harper said.

Harper had shoulder surgery only weeks before the bowl game last December. It was evident in his play Harper had not fully recovered: He was 14 of 33 for 104 yards and was sacked three times.

These days Harper is confident and comfortable, his throwing motion smooth and on target, and is looking forward to a successful start near home.

“It would be nice to go out there and have a great game,” he said, smiling.

Harper knows a few teammates who feel the same way.