C.J. Davidson began playing “large” as a kid in Seneca when his father placed him in a recreation league against older, bigger boys.
“When I was a little guy, I WAS a little guy,” said Davidson with obvious emphasis. “I always had to show the big guys I wasn’t scared of them.”
Tapping his knowledge of history, he characterized his propensity for contact at a young age as “a Napoleon mindset.”
Blind ambition and arrogance ultimately led to Napoleon’s demise. Davidson seems to have a clear, modest vision of what lies ahead as he carves his reputation as a tough, dynamic running back at Clemson.
“I’ve never been one to shy away from a player that’s bigger than me,” Davidson said recently. “Even in track, I was an aggressive runner.”
Track brought Davidson to Clemson, but encouragement from former Daniel High teammate DeAndre Hopkins led him to ask coach Dabo Swinney about a spot on the football team. Shortly after he joined the team, Swinney mentioned in passing that Davidson “might be able to help us down the road.”
Two years later, Davidson has an opportunity for a much larger role in Clemson’s offense than he allowed himself to imagine. As Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris scan the sudden wealth of running back talent, they frequently look at Davidson and smile.
Unwilling to be stereotyped as the football sprinter running wide to avoid contact, Davidson – at 180 pounds – liked grinding for yardage between the tackles.
“It’s amazing that we got a guy like that here that walks in off the street,” Swinney said. “He is a quality, quality player.”
Injuries last season to D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks created a window for Davidson until he, too, went down with an injury at Virginia after scoring his fourth touchdown of the season.
“I had a little adversity, so I had to come back strong with something to prove,” he said. “Getting hurt got me down a little bit, because I was afraid I wouldn’t play the rest of the season. I kept my mind right and kept on pushing.”
At full strength during spring practice, Davidson began to sculpt his body to absorb – and deliver – punishment. He reported this fall at 205 pounds. The “little guy” was built like a man, giving Clemson a stable of backs all weighing at least 200 pounds. In an offense intent on balance with less reliance on the pass, Davidson’s role remains undefined because of the potential depth.
“This is the deepest group we’ve had around here in a long time,” Swinney said. “We’re going to be just fine at running back. We’ve got some really good football players.”
Howard and Brooks, by seniority, were first in the pecking order when practice began with Davidson next. There have been moments for each but nothing sustaining.
Howard, the senior, rushed for 86 yards on nine carries as a redshirt freshman at Auburn, by far his most productive in three injury-marred seasons. Though he started against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game that season, Howard has not started the past two.
In the final preseason scrimmage Saturday, he broke a tackle and ran 45 yards for a touchdown.
Brooks’ high mark also came as a redshirt freshman, when he rushed for more than half his 113 yards at Duke. A high school receiver, Brooks was on the doorstep of claiming the job last season when he injured a shoulder against The Citadel and finished with 246 yards.
Redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman accelerated his campaign to play this season during bowl practice in December. Swinney said they had prepared Gallman for emergencies during the season, then decided not to burn the redshirt despite the spate of injuries.
A messenger back in a wing-T offense at Grayson High in Loganville, Ga., Gallman has plenty remaining on the tread, and he asserted himself into the mix during the spring.
“Wayne is Wayne. I can’t put my finger on it. He has something special,” Davidson said. “Honestly, I wish I had some of his attributes. He’s a big back and a big frame, and he’s fast. That’s the running back you ask for.
“You’ll see a lot of him this year.”
A wildcard might be Adam Choice, one of three members of this year’s freshman class. A high school option quarterback from Thomasville, Ga., he runs tough with a low center of gravity. C.J. Fuller, a freshman from Easley, and Kurt Fleming, a 24-year old former pro baseball player from Richmond, Va., are potential options down the road.
“We hit on both of those guys,” Swinney said of Choice and Fuller. “Those are two really good football players that are low maintenance, blue collar kind of guys. I’m really excited about those two.
“Then you throw in Fleming, who’s a developmental guy,” Swinney said. “When he learns to play football again and figures it all out, I think he’ll be a contributor.”
Likley not in the mix this season is Tyshon Dye, conceivably the most talented of all. A back injury and subsequent surgery cost him 2013, then he tore an Achilles tendon during a workout in February.
Dye reportedly was progressing toward an October return, but Swinney said doctors recommended Dye stay off the leg for a week.
Losing Dye a year ago was critical, but today’s depth should make it easier for Clemson to muster a respectable run game. Davidson, in particular, intends to take advantage of his larger frame and willingness to engage.
“It’s not like flipping a switch. It’s natural,” he said of his physical style. “Coming out here, you’ll get taken advantage of if you don’t blow back, so you’ve got to attack first some times. That’s what I have to live by.
“I don’t look for the contact, but if it’s there and I have to take it, I know I’ve worked hard enough to take it,” he said. “I think that’s one of the main things I focused on during the summer was gaining weight, so I could remain durable.”
And leave that Napoleon mentality in his wake.