CLEMSON — Wednesday was bittersweet for Tommy Bowden.
Early Wednesday afternoon, Clemson’s head coach learned he’d have his top receiver — junior Aaron Kelly — back for his senior season. But, just after 6 p.m., Bowden found out his top tailback, junior James Davis, was declaring for the NFL draft and leaving Clemson with a year of eligibility remaining.
“You’ve got six diamonds that put papers into the NFL (for evaluation),” Bowden said, referring to the Tigers’ six juniors who asked for evaluations. “Now you’ve got four and a half, five diamonds left.”
Tuesday, quarterback Cullen Harper, safety Michael Hamlin and defensive tackle Dorell Scott told Bowden they’re returning for their senior seasons. Defensive end Phillip Merling is believed to be leaning towards turning pro: he has been projected as a second-round pick.
Davis, projected as a third-round pick, said he turned pro over the objections of his mother, Theresa, who wants him to be the first member of his family to graduate from college. He said his family held two long meetings about the situation, but Davis ultimately felt more comfortable in the NFL.
“Yesterday, in the last meeting we had, everything we talked about was the decision to turn pro,” he said. “Financially was one of the situations with my daughter (one-year-old Jakia), and it’s always been my dream to play in the NFL.
“I talked to my mom and said, ‘You know I’ve always made good decisions. Sit back and let me make another big decision. I’m sticking to it and making a final decision.”
Davis said he plans eventually to return to Clemson for his degree, but since he wouldn’t graduate until May 2009, he felt he wouldn’t be any further ahead leaving later instead of now.
He has not yet hired an agent, but plans to start training for the NFL scouting combine on Monday.
Davis was the Tigers’ leading rusher each of the past three years and finishes his career with 3,130 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns — both second in Clemson history. He had 1,064 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
He leaves a void in the Tigers’ backfield. Clemson returns C.J. Spiller, one of the nation’s most explosive backs, but behind him, only rising junior Sadat Chambers has game experience. The Tigers have a verbal commitment from Andre Ellington, considered the top back in South Carolina, and are a finalist for Jacksonville, Fla., back Jamie Harper, considered one of the nation’s top five tailback prospects.
Rising in the NFL draft could be difficult, although Davis said he plans on proving himself at the NFL scouting combine.
This year’s draft features a strong class of draftable tailbacks including Rutgers’ Ray Rice, Illinois’ Rashard Mendenhall, Michigan’s Mike Hart, Oklahoma’s Allen Patrick, Georgia Tech’s Tashard Choice, Texas’ Jamaal Charles and possibly Arkansas’ Darren McFadden and West Virginia’s Steve Slaton.
“I’m not concerned about that,” Davis said. “If I was concerned about that, I’d probably stay in school. It’s just my dream. I feel like I played healthy this whole season and did a lot as far as being consistent. That’s what I looked at — NFL running backs don’t play very long, and that was a lot of what I based my decision on.”
Bowden didn’t appear pleased with Davis’ choice.
“I don’t think it’s the best decision,” he said, “but I’m going to support the decision and encourage him to come back and get his degree.”
His mood was tempered a bit by Kelly’s decision, of course.
When Clemson fans see Kelly catching big passes next fall, they’ll have one person to thank: his mother.
The junior wide receiver said Wednesday that he’d decided to leave early for the NFL draft before talking with his mother Janice, who strongly convinced him otherwise.
“Really just talking to my mom, she’s the main influence in most of the decisions I’ve made in my life,” Kelly said. “I’d kind of made my decision to go pro, and her doing what she does — my mom is very smart — she’s worked hard her whole life and she’s very successful and I take what she says very seriously.
“She went and gathered her own information, called people, talked to people and said some things that meant a lot coming from her.”
Her main point? Getting a business management degree — which Kelly will be 20 hours away from after this semester — was the most important thing.
And she was extremely serious about it, too. Kelly noticed when he talked with her early Wednesday afternoon.
“I could just feel the emotion in her voice, how she felt,” he said. “I never really felt my mom feel that strongly, that I was making a bad decision. Because she felt like that, I should listen to what she said and take in what the coaches were saying.”
It made all the difference, he said.
“I was pretty dead set (about leaving),” he said. “For her to be that adamant about me to come back, that’s what swayed me. She’s been part of decisions my whole career to come here, schooling things that are important to me.
“She’s been through a lot, came from nothing and she’s always been there when I had to make big decisions and she’s always been right. I felt I was going against her and I’ve never done that in my life, so why should I start now?”
His return is a huge boost for the Tigers’ offense: without Kelly, Clemson lacks a proven big-play receiver.
Kelly enjoyed a spectacular junior season, making 88 receptions for 1,081 yards and 11 touchdowns, leading the ACC in reception yards, touchdowns and ranking second in total receptions.
He’ll begin his season third in Clemson history in career receptions, third in touchdown catches and seventh in career reception yardage. He needs just three receptions, three touchdown catches and 671 yards to become the Tigers’ career leader in all three categories. He needs just 52 receptions to become the ACC career reception leader.
Kelly said he was projected as a fourth-round pick, with a chance to rise as high as the third round with a strong NFL combine performance. That left him very interested in exploring his future.
“Just the chance to play at the next level,” he said. “None of that stuff is guaranteed as where you’re going to go. I figured if it worked out well I’d have a better chance to go higher. I’ve got a lot of faith in my ability as to how far I can go.”