CLEMSON — There was never really much doubt DaQuan Bowers would wind up here eventually.
Bowers’ cousin, Chris Franklin, was a Clemson linebacker in the mid-1990s.
His friend, Clemson defensive end Ricky Sapp, took him as a protégé while the two played together at Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School.
And Bowers has been a Tiger fan all his life.
But, his fate was probably sealed the moment he stepped on Clemson’s campus as an eighth-grader and got some defensive-line tips from former All-America defensive end Gaines Adams.
Clemson’s coaches pulled Bowers and his coach, Ron Duncan, aside. When you’re ready, they said, we’ll have a scholarship for you.
At the time, Bowers stood 6-foot-3, 280 pounds.
“I didn’t take football seriously,” he said Thursday. “It was just something I did because I was big and I was good at it. I never thought I’d have a chance to play college football at all.”
Turns out he’ll have a chance to play it pretty well. Bowers, one of six freshman early enrollees at Clemson, now stands 6-5, 270 pounds. He is considered the No.1 overall prep prospect in America by ESPN.com and No. 2 overall by top recruiting services Rivals.com and Scout.com.
And with junior Phillip Merling’s decision to leave Clemson early for the NFL, Bowers stands an excellent chance of starting the season opener Aug. 30 in the Georgia Dome against Alabama.
There’s little chance of the hype surrounding him seeping into his head by then.
“I never thought I’d be ranked this high,” he said. “I never thought about rankings, period. I never thought I’d have a chance to play college football until Clemson offered me my first scholarship. It’s a great opportunity to play college football, and I’m blessed.”
When Clemson coaches offered Bowers as an eighth grader, he and Duncan — who was recently hired as Seneca High’s head coach — started working together. Duncan told Bowers he possessed the talent to be very special if he worked at it.
Duncan did his part on the football field, and Bowers’ parents made sure he paid rapt attention to academics, one of the reasons he was able to enroll early at Clemson.
Sapp, who was a senior when Bowers was a sophomore, played a big role, too, “taking me under his wing,” Bowers said.
The product? One of the most complete players to arrive at Clemson. As a senior, Bowers had 97 tackles, 33 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and seven blocked kicks. What’s more, he had 1,219 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns, caught two touchdown passes and averaged 40 yards per kickoff return. (Bowers says he’ll play defense exclusively in college).
Bowers downplayed characterizations of himself as a defensive “freak,” saying he just follows coaches’ orders.
“I’m emotional, competitive, (play at) a fast tempo,” he said. “I like to do all the things the right way, the way coaches want it to be done.”
If he can get past holdover Kevin Alexander in spring practice, he’d be Merling’s likely heir this fall and a solid bookend for Sapp.
“I’m a little stronger than Ricky and Ricky’s a lot faster than me,” Bower said. “He’s the slim, quick one and I’m the big, bulky one.”
Not that he’s thinking that far ahead, at least publicly.
“I’m going to go into spring practice with a competitive attitude,” he said. “I would love to start, love it more than anything. But, there’s a lot of guys in front of me. It’s not like high school where you’re one of the biggest athletes in the area and you’re picked over other people even though they’re great athletes.
“Up here, everyone is as good as me and maybe even better. I want to get playing time and maybe even start.”
Bowers will wear Adams’ old number, 93, after redshirt freshman Rennie Moore, who wore the number last season, switched to Merling’s No. 94.
Wearing Adams’ digits is a strong statement, but if Bowers can evoke some memories of him, he figures he can provide a solid step in Clemson’s defensive end lineage.
“Ricky’s had a very good career so far,” Bowers said. “If I could get what he’s done I think I’d be happy. He’s done a lot of good things for the program, came in freshman year and played behind the No. 4 pick in the NFL draft.
“Gaines showed me a lot and showed him a lot. I think if I could do as much as those guys, I’d be OK.”
CLAY LEAVES AGAIN
Antonio Clay’s Clemson future is in doubt after university officials announced Thursday he had withdrawn from school for the second time in as many years. Clay, a junior middle linebacker, spent spring 2007 at home in Jeffersonville, Ga., dealing with depression stemming from the August, 2006 death of his sister in an automobile accident. He returned to school in June, 2007.
“Antonio has left school due to personal reasons,” Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said in a statement. “He will not be in school this semester. That is all we know at this time.”
Clay played in all 13 games as a junior, starting one, and making 43 tackles. However, he suffered a relapse of his emotional problems late in the season, which led to Thursday’s announcement.