SPRING PREVIEW: They're Back!

If Clemson's wide receivers are loaded, the running backs are locked, loaded and ready for launch. CUTigers.com continues its spring preview by taking a closer look at the Tigers' running backs.

WHO'S BACK? First-team All-ACC running back James Davis returns for his senior year after entering his name in the 2008 NFL Draft then changing his mind earlier this winter. His roommate, and fellow All-ACC candidate C.J. Spiller, will also be back. The two combined for over 1,800 rushing yards and scored 13 touchdowns in 2007. Last season's third-team running back, Sadat Chambers, has been moved to free safety and will backup Chris Clemons. Chambers finished as the team's fourth leading rusher with 161 yards in 28 carries, including a 63-yard touchdown run against Central Michigan. Ray Ray McElrathbey, who showed signs of big-play ability last spring after moving over from defense, could be back this spring after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

WHO'S NEW? Nobody is truly new this spring but freshman Jamie Harper, the No. 5 running back in the country according to Scout.com, will arrive later this summer to compete for playing time alongside Davis and Spiller next season. At 227 pounds, Harper is viewed as a true "power" back and should work his way into the rotation even as a true freshman. Andre Ellington will also enter his name into the mix later this summer but he's likely looking at a redshirt season.

BATTLE TO WATCH: Davis and Spiller truly have nothing to prove this spring but both will continue to battle for more carries. Who is the No. 3 running back right now? Is McElrathbey healthy enough to return to action? Is it walk-on Paul Macko? The third team running back spot offers some intrigue this spring, even if that spot will be relinquished later this summer to the freshman Harper.

WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN: First and foremost, Davis and Spiller need to make it through spring ball injury-free. Second, Spiller needs to continue to work on hitting the hole with authority as opposed to trying to bounce outside to constantly get the big play. He's a threat to score anytime he touches the ball, but he'd be better served by taking his five to six yards per carry and allow the big plays to happen naturally after that. Davis also needs to establish himself as a better receiving threat out of the backfield before he gets to the next level. Last year he caught 12 passes for 51 yards and two touchdowns.


C.J. Spiller returns for his junior year hoping to top 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his Clemson career.
BOLD PREDICTIONS: Looking ahead to next season, Davis should break Clemson's all-time rushing record held by Raymond Priester assuming he stays healthy. Spiller needs to continue to become more involved in the passing game while learning he shouldn't be disappointed when he doesn't run 80 yards untouched to the end zone every time he carries the ball. Last year he finished third on the team in receptions with 34. Don't be surprised if it all comes together for both running backs this season, as both go over 1,000 yards and key factors in Clemson winning the ACC. Also, look for fullback/H-Back Chad Diehl to take on a true lead blocking role more this spring and next season.

TEAM IMPACT: Here's the good news: Clemson returns more talent in the backfield than at any point in school history in 2008. That includes running backs Davis and Spiller as well as second-team All-ACC QB Cullen Harper.

Even the backups, Jamie Harper and Willy Korn, have the potential to be great players one day, and both will likely see the field in some capacity next season.

Now here's the bad news: those players won't be able to produce at a high level if they don't get quality blocking up front. While it's true the Tigers are replacing four of five starters on the offensive line, three returning linemen have starting experience in some capacity.

"I like our ability to be productive, if not more productive," head coach Tommy Bowden said recently of his new starters. "Even though we lose some offensive linemen, we've got some good guys coming in their place. I think we'll be able to find five quality guys."

Somehow, some way, look for Davis and Spiller to have record setting years. If the line can just be consistently average, it could be a special year for the team in terms of challenging for an ACC Championship and for Davis, who should set the school rushing record.

"It would mean that I came back for my senior year and I made a name for myself at Clemson," Davis said. "It would be something that people would never forget. That's definitely big for me. I'm really happy I'm going to get that chance. It means a lot."

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