Sports

Running back C.J. Spiller - key to Clemson success


Published: Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 3:15 p.m.

Clemson

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Clemson’s C.J. Spiller going through drills during football practice.

The Associated Press/FILE

C.J. Spiller sat with a satisfied smile, pleased his former Clemson roommate and close friend James Davis finally listened.

Davis, the "Thunder" to Spiller's "Lightning" in the Tigers backfield the past three years, had run for 81-yard TD to continue an impressive camp for the Cleveland Browns last weekend.

"It's what I always told him," Spiller said. "If he just put his head down, he wouldn't be caught from behind."

Spiller would know - few have caught up to the speedy, mind-of-his own back since high school.

He long ago set a Clemson best with 12 career TDs of 50 yards or better as a rusher, pass catcher and returner. Six of those were at least 80 yards. Spiller, though, has raised just as many eyebrows with his career path.

Head coach Dabo Swinney, Spiller's recruiter, remembers being about the lone voice in the Tiger coaches room thinking Spiller, a Lake Butler, Fla., native, would pick Clemson over closer-to-home powers like Florida and Florida State.

Then after Spiller's freshman year in 2006, it was all but done he'd transfer back to the national champion Gators - some reports had him in class at Florida - to be near his then infant daughter.

And finally last January, Spiller surprised people again, telling a crowd of cheering teammates, coaches and friends that despite a first-round NFL draft projection and the desires of his mother to go, he'd return to the Tigers.

"He's uncommon," Swinney said simply.

To Spiller, he's just being C.J. He studied everyone's advice at each career milepost, then listened most to what he felt inside.

"I've been here four years," he said. "What you see is what you get."

Clemson has gotten quite a lot so far from a player with just seven career starts in 38 games. He's the school's leader with 4,908 all-purpose yards and needs 921 this fall to set the Atlantic Coast Conference career mark. His performances are YouTube.com must sees, like his 96-yard kickoff return in last year's opener with Alabama, his 64-yard return TD at Boston College last November, and, still Spiller's personal favorite, his sideline double-juke of two Georgia Tech tacklers in a 2006 game at Death Valley.

In his first three seasons Spiller was surrounded by playmakers like Davis, Clemson's second all-time leading rusher; quarterback Cullen Harper; and ACC's career pass-catcher Aaron Kelly. This time, Spiller will carry the bulk of the Tiger attack. Swinney plans on more carries, catches and kicks for the 5-foot-11 senior.

Spiller's plans? "To do more special things," he says with a laugh.

Tiger running backs coach Andre Powell watched Spiller defer to Davis, an outsized personality who loved to punch up practices with shouts and talk. Now, Spiller's been more vocal, Powell says, pointing Clemson's younger players down the right path.

Spiller has loved his increased leadership roll, pushing teammates to work harder each snap and every workout. And if they get too complacent as the Tigers prepare for their opener with Middle Tennessee on Sept. 5, "I'll play some 'Roll Tide' music just to remind them," Spiller said, recalling the Tigers 34-10 loss to Alabama in last year's first game.

"They know this year I'll be more focused," Spiller said.

Clemson's athletic department certainly thinks so. It has promoted Spiller for the Heisman Trophy, producing 6-foot posters for voters reminiscent to ones sent out in support of William "Refrigerator" Perry 25 years earlier.

"My line on that is, 'How can he have a 6-foot poster when he's not even six feet?'" Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker said.

Spiller doesn't let the attention sway him from his main goal - Clemson success. A year ago, the Tigers were picked as runaway favorites for the ACC title. Questions about the team's offense and coaches - Swinney had never been a head coach or coordinator before taking over as interim last October - this season have Clemson in the middle of the ACC pack.

Expect that to change, if Spiller has a say.

"I know I still have to go in and put in the hard work," he said. "I still have to go out and perform and put our team in position to win games."

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