Rutgers senior tailback reunites with familiar foe
Their bond can be traced back to 1999 when the Clement family moved from Philadelphia to a small, sleepy town in southern New Jersey. Seven-year-old Stephen Clement and his little brother, Corey, started playing in the local youth football league — the Glassboro Midgets — and soon the two ran up against another pair of brothers, Christian James and his brother Paul.
The four became close — Stephen and Paul call each other best friends to this day — and it all centered around football in this tiny town that would otherwise go unnoticed if not for New Jersey’s third-largest university, Rowan, residing in its center.
“It’s just a small town that loves football,” Paul James said.
Eighteen years, one high school state championship and a bevy of Big Ten accolades later, Paul James and Corey Clement are two of the top running backs in the conference, with Paul a senior for the Rutgers football team and Corey a junior at Wisconsin.
The former teammates will be pit against each other this Saturday as their schools square off at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.
Corey Clement has been sidelined for most of the 2015 season with a groin injury, but is listed as questionable this week on the Badgers (6-2, 2-1) injury report.
James knows the feeling.
After recovering from knee surgery, the 6-foot, 215-pounder got off to a slow start in the first four games this fall, rushing for only 169 yards on 40 carries. But in the last three times out, Paul James has looked more like the Paul James who was the featured back in his junior season.
Against then-No. 4 Michigan State, Indiana and No. 1 Ohio State, James rushed for 172 yards at an average of 9.6 yards per carry.
Stephen Clement has seen this show before.
“PJ was the fastest thing I’ve seen on a high school field, ever,” the former Glassboro High School quarterback said. “(James had) the stride of Gale Sayers and it almost didn’t even look like he was moving that fast until you got close enough and then you’d realize, ‘Oh, he’s moving, you better get out of the way of that before you get hurt.’”
James teamed up with Stephen and Corey Clement to win a state championship for Glassboro in 2011. The elder Clement played quarterback and, as he put it, had the pleasure of handing the ball off to two future Big Ten ball-carriers.
“Honestly, I could go all day with these two,” Clement said. “It was like coming to practice with Emmitt Smith and Reggie Bush — at the time. It was ridiculous. They were a different breed.”
The bond between Paul James and Corey Clement remains strong. The two exchange text messages often and have been there for each other in tough times.
When James went down with injury last season, Corey reached out to him to wish him luck and a speedy recovery, James said. And now that Corey is banged up, James has been keeping tabs on his progress.
“We always have each other’s backs, so when something like that happens, it breaks your heart,” said James, who is also Rutgers' senior captain. “You wanna see them have great success so it just hurts.”
The extent to which these two talented tailbacks have been there for each other goes beyond the text messages they exchange or the prayers they offer each other to be healthy each week. The two have fought for each other, Stephen Clement said.
One night back in high school, Corey, Stephen and Paul were out at a party together and like most high school house parties, it began to get a little out of hand.
“Corey protected PJ one time actually,” Stephen said. “There was a group of kids that came into a party and they were disrespecting the house. PJ had said something to somebody like, ‘They gotta get out,’ the kids tried to sucker-punch PJ, but Corey jumped in. They got really close after that.”
They have remained close. And the pair will be reunited Saturday in Madison as the Scarlet Knights (3-4, 1-3) look to steady the ship after the 49-7 humbling at the hands of the No. 1 Buckeyes last Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Wisconsin is coming off a relatively easy 24-13 win over Illinois in Champaign last week. The Badgers defense boasts the nation’s second-best mark in points allowed at 11.1 per game. Their 87.2 rushing yards against average should make the holes a little smaller for James and company.
But the senior from Glassboro has had the hot hand as of late and appears to be getting close to a breakout game after having his carries limited early in the year due to the emergence of sophomores Josh Hicks and Robert Martin. After busting the Spartans' defense open for a 72-yard run on Oct. 10, James didn’t get another carry in the game, a byproduct of the Knights running back rotation.
“That was actually a function of the rotation. It wasn't on purpose,” said then-interim head coach Norries Wilson. “It's just how the rotation came out and when we came out in 22 personnel and ran it with Josh (Hicks). And the next rotation was on Rob (Martin).”
James has kept his head down and continued to perform for Rutgers, running for the game-tying touchdown in the historic comeback at Indiana.
Looking back, Stephen Clement is not surprised with the success of his brother and best friend.
“I’ve seen coaches bring their sons over to Corey and Paul and they’d say, 'It was a pleasure to play against you,'” Stephen said. “I brag about it all the time. I played with the best two running backs to come out of South Jersey. I know I did.”
That’s pretty high praise considering a fellow former Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne, of Berlin, tore up high school defenses in South Jersey before making it to the NFL.
James said he plans to reach out to Corey Clement this week and if Clement is able to play, the pair will exchange pleasantries postgame as well.
And while those two take in the game from Camp Randall, Stephen and the Clement family will be joined by the James family at the Landmark Americana in Glassboro, with Corey’s retired high school jersey hanging on the wall.
For Stephen, there’s no need to clarify his rooting interests for his best friend.
“I think Paul has come to accept that I’ve chosen the ‘Dub Nation.’ But it’s not just ‘Forget Rutgers,’ I’m New Jersey all the way,” Stephen Clement said. “I gotta ride out for the Clement gang even though the James gang may not like it. But it’s all love, it’s all love.”
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