As 2007 turned into 2008, James Davis sat in a chair on the Georgia Dome’s floor discussing, appropriately enough, his future.
Shortly after Clemson finished 2007 with a painful 23-20 Chick-fil-A Bowl overtime loss to Auburn, the Tigers’ bruising junior tailback turned on his cell phone.
A text message from his mother, Theresa Davis, flashed on.
“We staying?” it read.
That’s a question every Clemson player, coach and fan wants him to answer. And although nothing is certain until the deadline for juniors to enter the NFL draft passes Jan. 15, Davis appears likely to return for his senior season of college football.
“I’ll sit down and talk with my family about it,” Davis said. “I’m definitely leaning towards staying. My mom wants me to stay, but I still want to go through the process and see what happens.”
Davis rushed for 1,064 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, his second consecutive 1,000-yard campaign. He has submitted his name to the NFL draft advisory committee for evaluation but has yet to receive his status.
He said in mid-December that he would enter the draft if he was a first-round selection and return if he was projected as a third-round pick. A second-round evaluation, he said, would force he and his family into serious consideration of their options.
Davis, 22, has an infant daughter, Jakia, to support, but he and his family said that finances won’t be a major factor in his decision. If Davis returned for his senior season, he’d likely earn his degree, making him the first member of his family to do so.
Theresa Davis said in late December that academics and getting a degree are her most important goals.
“That’s what I want, a degree,” she said. “You’ve got to get your education, too.”
It’s worth waiting for, she said.
“We’ve come this far, why not do another year?” she said. “Why not?”
Davis was frustrated at times this season by his use in coordinator Rob Spence’s offense, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Before the bowl game he publically lobbed for more use, saying his bowl-game role would play a key factor in his decision.
Thanks in part to quarterback Cullen Harper’s struggles (14-of-33 for 104 yards), Davis got all the work he wanted — 23 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown came early in the fourth quarter on fourth and inches from the Auburn 1, a sign Spence heard Davis’ anger.
“Coach Spence did a key job in giving me the ball,” he said. “I love him for that and I appreciate it.”
ESPN.com NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. doesn’t project Davis as one of the top five junior tailback prospects or one of his top 25 overall prospects, meaning a first-round selection is unlikely.
Davis is one of a handful of Clemson juniors who have requested NFL draft projections. Others include quarterback Cullen Harper, receiver Aaron Kelly, defensive tackle Dorell Scott, defensive end Phillip Merling and safety Michael Hamlin.
Merling has said that he is unlikely to leave unless he is a first-round selection, and Spence’s decision to stay at Clemson instead of taking Tennessee’s offensive coordinator job likely ensured Harper’s decision to stay. Kelly said Monday night that he hasn’t received his evaluation papers yet.
If all juniors return, Clemson would return 18 starters next fall. 2008 is likely to begin with a Georgia Dome matchup against Alabama on Aug. 30. The two schools are working with Chick-fil-A Bowl officials — including bowl president Gary Stokan — to announce a decision soon.
Stokan said Sunday that a few details regarding both teams’ schedules remain to be worked out, and that if a deal is reached, it will be announced by mid-January at the very latest.