Spiller wears poker face well

Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
If C.J. Spiller wasn't a football player, what would he be?
Union County coach Buddy Nobles and I think he'd be a heckuva poker player.
Spiller, the state's Mr. Football runner-up and arguably the nation's top uncommitted prospect, has kept us all guessing where he will end up. Even Nobles, not just Spiller's coach, but also a close confidante, said he is unsure where the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder with sub-4.3 40 speed will go (though, in fairness, Nobles said he hasn't pushed it because he wants to be surprised when Spiller makes his announcement today).
Likewise, Spiller has kept newspaper reporters, dot-commers and fans of universities across the nation wondering. Is it Florida? Florida State? Clemson? Miami? Southern California?
I've spent my share of time with C.J. since last spring. In that time I have learned he is a very well-spoken and polite kid who puts thought into everything he does.
He has strong opinions on steroids ("no place in sports for them"), was moved by the Walter Payton exhibit when he visited the pro football Hall of Fame last summer, and wears a locket around his neck with a picture of his late grandmother.
He follows each of his prospective teams online, reading about commitments, suspensions, NFL defections, and depth charts. So, this decision will be based on a lot of exploration and background work.
Miami is out in great part because of the recent firing of running backs coach Don Soldinger, who was the point man in Spiller's recruitment and a person C.J. grew to like very much. Spiller had an entertaining visit to Coral Gables and said the players were quality guys, but he had worries the program's iffy reputation could (and does) unfairly cast a shadow over athletes who aren't problem children.
USC is out for a few reasons. The distance obviously made it so it would be difficult for C.J.'s family and friends to watch him live. Also, coach Pete Carroll turned off Spiller a bit by making a few disparaging remarks about how the other teams in pursuit would misuse him and suggesting the Trojans would put him in the same role they did Reggie Bush.
C.J. isn't the kind of kid who cares much for negativity (particularly since he developed positive relationships with everyone recruiting him) and also is ready to establish his own identity. So no matter how flattering a Bush comparison might be, Carroll's pitch may have come across as trying to fit a player into a cookie cutter mold and not looking at an athlete on an individual basis.
That leaves us with childhood favorite FSU, hard-charging Clemson and the practically hometown Gators.
Contrary to reports, Spiller did not have a bad visit to Tallahassee last weekend. He said his host was running back Lorenzo Booker and the two played some friendly games of NCAA Football '05 (where C.J. said his USC team got the better of Booker's 'Noles). Spiller, devout in his beliefs, also enjoyed going to church with some of the players on Sunday.
On the football side Spiller said he watched the troubles the Seminoles had on the offensive line last year, but considers that more of a hiccup than a long-term affliction. Never one to back down from a challenge, Spiller also said the presence of Booker and Antone Smith won't deter him, as he enjoys competition. Also, it can't be forgotten he grew up chopping, not chomping (though he did do that to the Gator crowd at a basketball game on his official visit to UF in mid-January), and has been known to refer to the Seminoles as "we" in past conversations.
The Tigers came onto the scene relatively late (Spiller listed UF, FSU, Miami and USC as his final four a few weeks back), but have made quite the impression. C.J. said he liked the town a great deal on his Jan. 15 visit and the commitment of teammate Kevin Alexander to Clemson no doubt will be a factor in the decision.
The fact that UF never offered a scholarship to Alexander, an all-state outside linebacker/defensive end whose brother Bennie is a former Gator cornerback, but did to other linebackers with similar recruiting grades hasn't gone unnoticed. Spiller believes Alexander is as good as anyone out there.
Between the lines, Clemson also is the most settled at tailback of the three finalists, as two 700-plus-yard rushers will be back next year. The best of those, James Davis, was named ACC Rookie of the Year and was MVP of the Champs Sports Bowl.
Which brings us to the Gators. Word inside UF is the Gators have done everything they possibly could to land Spiller and if they don't, it just wasn't meant to be.
Urban Meyer has forged a good relationship with Spiller's mother and pastor, and C.J. has said he thinks his skills fit in well with the spread option. Meyer also has benefitted from quarterback Tim Tebow's early arrival. Tebow, a friend of Spiller, has been proactive in telling the running back how enjoyable it would be to play together while not being pushy.
Let's also not forget that on UF's off week, Meyer went to watch Spiller play against P.K. Yonge and Gator commitment Derrick Robinson when Tebow (with Alabama still heavily in the picture) and his St. Augustine Nease teammates were playing just 30 minutes north in Lake City. Don't think C.J. didn't notice.
There's also the matter of the folks of Lake Butler, with whom Spiller has a close bond, evidenced by him turning down opportunities to commit on national television so they could all be there to watch him slip on the chosen hat. Many of them have been around since little C.J. was causing gasps as an 8-year-old in Pop Warner games. He knows they'll be happy for him wherever he goes, but would love for him to play just up the road in The Swamp.
So, what's the final call? Three weeks ago, I would have said FSU. Two weeks ago, Florida. Last week, FSU again. Monday, I thought it might just be Clemson.
On signing day, I think it's the Gators. John Patton is The Sun's high school sports editor. You can reach him by calling 374-5074 or by e-mail at pattonj@gvillesun.com. Barry Heckard contributed to this column.
JOHN PATTON ON C.J. SPILLER () It was Tuesday night and Travis Timmons was sitting at a table in his home.
"I've been stressed," Buchholz's 6-foot-5, 285-pound defensive lineman/tight end said. "I have four national letters of intent in front of me with one waiting to be signed. I've had a lot to think about lately."
The choices? Georgia, Florida State, Miami and Central Florida.
Timmons said he will announce his choice today at 3 p.m. at Buchholz, signing with one of his four finalists in a ceremony that also will see quarterback Austin Hudson and receiver Bryant Davis sign with Air Force.
All-area as a tight end and all-state as a defensive lineman, Timmons said he prefers playing defense because "it's better for longevity to hit than be hit." He also is hoping to sign somewhere he sees as "moving upward" and can offer early playing time.
He said each of his final four schools like him as a defensive end or tackle, but added UCF, where former Bobcats' quarterback Alex Thompson plays, has expressed an interest in also seeing him some at tight end.

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