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April 10, 2007A dark cloud hovered around Clemson's campus long after its "Thunder & Lightning" backfield finished its first season together.
The gloomy forecast surrounded the future of C.J. Spiller, whose knack for the quick strike made him the "Lightning" half of the Tigers' talented twosome. The Rivals.com freshman All-American nearly decided to make his debut season his lone year at Clemson.
Spiller seriously considered returning to his home state and transferring to Florida in a move that could have proved devastating to Clemson's Atlantic Coast Conference title hopes. He instead chose to continue teaming up with James Davis to give Clemson one of the nation's top running-back tandems.
Davis and Spiller combined to rush for 2,125 yards and score 29 touchdowns last year. They believe they can fare even better this fall.
"We can be as good as we want to be," Spiller said. "If we just go out there, execute, play our game, stay humble and take it one game at a time, I think the sky's the limit."
Spiller's decision to stay at Clemson offered a glimpse of the unselfishness that exists between these two teammates. As Spiller weighed the pros and cons of staying at Clemson or leaving for Florida, he sought Davis' advice.
Davis could have asked Spiller to stay because it was the best thing for Clemson. He could have recommended that Spiller leave because it represented Davis' best chance to earn individual glory.
He did neither of those things.
"I told him you've got to step up and make this decision on your own and be a man about it," Davis said. "I didn't tell him what to do. I just told him to make the best decision, and whatever decision you make, I'm going to be happy with it. I told him I loved him and wanted to be there for him.
"I think everything will work out well. I think he made the best decision by staying here."
Spiller's dilemma didn't result from a personality conflict with Davis or a desire to get more carries. He gets along so well with Davis that they often hang out together off the field by going out to eat or playing video games.
"He just said that I'm going to have to make my decision on my own and had to talk it over with my family," Spiller said. "I respected that a lot.''
A former five-star prospect from Lake Butler (Fla.) Union County High, Spiller said he thought about transferring mainly because he wanted to spend more time with his daughter, Shania, who lives in Florida.
Although Spiller returned home a couple of weekends ago in part to help his daughter celebrate her first birthday, he dismissed a recent report that suggested he was reconsidering his decision to remain at Clemson.
"I've put all that behind me," Spiller said.
Davis and Spiller are the main reasons Clemson enters the season as a legitimate ACC title contender despite losing seven starters on offense and future first-round draft pick Gaines Adams on defense. Last season, the Tigers dropped four of their last five games.
Clemson will enter the 2007 season with only eight seniors on scholarship, its lowest total since 1985. The Tigers must break in a new starting quarterback and four new starters on the offensive line ? the only returner is All-America candidate Barry Richardson at left tackle. The Tigers still figure to run the ball effectively as long as Davis and Spiller are in the backfield.
Davis rushed for 1,187 yards as a sophomore and tied a school single-season record with 17 touchdown runs while providing the power running that earned him the "Thunder" nickname. Spiller gained 938 yards and ranked fourth in the nation by gaining 7.3 yards per carry, the highest average by an ACC player since Florida State's Warrick Dunn picked up 7.5 yards per rush in 1995.
Their new coach sure knows about them.
Clemson running backs coach Andre Powell coached running backs at North Carolina last year. Davis and Spiller combined to rush for six touchdowns in a 52-7 thrashing of the Tar Heels.
Powell remembered how his colleagues on North Carolina's staff wondered how to contain this dynamic duo in the days leading up to that blowout.
"I didn't coach that side of the ball (defense), so I was wondering how to stop Gaines Adams," Powell said. "But I could hear our defensive guys talk about it. 'Holy cow! What do we do?'
"The more great players you can put on the field at one time, the better off you are."
That's why Powell is attempting to find ways to get Spiller and Davis on the field more often.
That could involve having both players in the backfield at once. One player might line up in the slot while the other stays in the backfield. Or perhaps both could line up as receivers in an empty-back set.
"You keep the defense guessing that way," Spiller said. "They don't really know where the ball's going."
Spiller collected 19 receptions for 210 yards and a pair of touchdowns last year, while Davis has caught 25 passes in two seasons at Clemson. Powell said both players have excellent pass-catching ability.
Powell also believes the backs can improve in other areas.
He wants them to play better without the ball in their hands, whether they're improving their pass protection or opening up more holes for each other. He also would like these two breakaway threats to prove they can get the tough yards when the line doesn't create much running room.
"He's a hard-nosed guy," Davis said. "He wants us to be more physical than we were last year."
Powell has the track record to get players to listen to what he says.
He was the running backs coach at Virginia in 1996 during Tiki Barber's senior season and Thomas Jones' freshman year. Both players went on to become high draft picks and productive NFL running backs.
"I didn't spend the last 15 years changing oil at Jiffy Lube," Powell said. "I've been around a little bit. I told them, 'I won't do anything that's going to hurt you. My job is to help you become a first-round draft choice.'
"If they start calling out names (of draft picks) at 12 o'clock, you're going to want your name called out before 1 o'clock. I'm going to do everything I can to help them accomplish that."
Davis' reputation as a power back overshadows the fact that he had a pair of 64-yard touchdown runs last season.
"James has a little more power (than Spiller),'' Powell said, "but he also has good shake. He's deceptive.''
And even though Davis calls his backfield mate one of the fastest guys he's ever seen, Spiller believes that speed overshadows his physical prowess.
"(Davis) is a power guy who also has speed, and I'm more of a speed guy," Spiller said. "But I'm probably underrated for my ability to run between the tackles and be a power guy."
Spiller rarely needed to run over defenders last year. He was too busy running away from them.
His 12 touchdowns last season covered an average distance of 38.4 yards. That included an 82-yard catch-and-run against Boston College, an 80-yard breakaway against South Carolina and a 72-yard scamper against Wake Forest.
"C.J. has unbelievable acceleration and change-of-direction," Powell said. "It's as good as or better than anyone I've been around."
Clemson fans remain thankful he didn't make a dramatic change in direction last winter.
(Cris Ard of TigerIllustrated.com contributed to this report).
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.