CLEMSON, S.C. - James Davis chuckles when he thinks back to all the people who told him what a big mistake it was to join Clemson and get lost in coach Tommy Bowden's passing attack.
Davis knew best and now both he and the Tigers are thriving.
He leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing heading into Clemson's game with 13th-ranked Georgia Tech (5-1, 3-0 ACC) on Saturday night and has been a major factor in changing the Tigers' offensive focus.
"I knew if I came here, I'd make a difference in this team," Davis said. "Running the ball has been successful for us. ... I think that's changed the focus for us, instead of throwing the ball first and running the ball second, now we're more of a run first and pass second. That's pretty good."
It's a dramatic shift from the wing-it-around schemes Bowden brought to the Tigers (6-1, 3-1) in 1999.
No. 12 Clemson had been a proud proponent of the run-first (and second) offense during its dominating decade of the 1980s, when it won five ACC titles and the 1981 national championship with backs such as Kevin Mack, Terrance Flagler and Terry Allen.
But Bowden's teams went to the pass, led by standout quarterbacks Woodrow Dantzler and Charlie Whitehurst, and NFL-quality receivers such as Rod Gardner, Derrick Hamilton, Airese Currie and Chansi Stuckey.
Only three times between 1938 and 1998 had a Clemson receiver caught at least 53 passes. Bowden's teams had a receiver surpass that total in each of his seven previous seasons.
The Tigers' longest run from scrimmage a year ago? Whitehurst's surprise 65-yard chug in a triple overtime loss to Miami.
So it was understandable for those closest to Davis to worry. After all, he gained 2,389 yards and 28 touchdowns his senior year at Atlanta's Douglass High two years ago and needed to go somewhere he could run free and easy instead of picking up blitzing linebackers.
"Everybody was like, 'James, you come from Douglass High School where you get the ball 20, 25 times a game. They probably won't run the ball that many times total,' " Davis said.
Perhaps Clemson still wouldn't if Bowden hadn't had a heart-to-heart with himself.
His yearly team goal is to rush for 2,000 yards each season, something the Tigers only reached twice when Dantzler was a dual threat.
Two years ago, Bowden made one of the hardest decisions of his career in firing friend and offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain and bringing aboard Rob Spence from Toledo.
Spence's offense blended rock-solid running with more situational passing.
It needed a powerful, speedy back as its centerpiece. Davis agreed, choosing the Tigers over more tailback-friendly schools like Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
"I had to go with my own decision," Davis said. "I just knew there was something at Clemson."
WHO: No. 13 Georgia Tech at No. 12 Clemson
WHEN: 7:45 p.m. Saturday
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