A year ago, Clemson running back C.J. Spiller and his teammates were reading the press clippings about how great they were and that they were the favorite to win the ACC. Quarterback Cullen Harper was coming off of a spectacular ’07 season, Aaron Kelly emerged as a star wide receiver, James Davis continued to pound the ball in the red zone and Spiller was his dynamic self.
But in reading the ink prior to the ’08 season, the end result for the Tigers was an ordinary 7 – 6 finish; a far cry from the projected ACC Championship. With players like Harper, Kelly, Davis, Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons moving on to the NFL, Spiller not only becomes the featured runner in the backfield, but the main focus of the Clemson team this season.
Chris Steuber: With that said, how big is this year for you?
C.J. Spiller: It’s very big. This is my last year; my senior year, so I want to go out on a good note. Not only for myself, but for the university and my teammates, because this will be the last time I’ll put on the Clemson uniform.
CS: How difficult is it to know that this is your last year at Clemson?
Spiller: It kind of went by fast, but I’ll take it one day at a time and try to slow down the pace. It’s been a wonderful ride. This year will be very different without James [Davis] and some of the other seniors I played with. But, I’m playing with some guys now that I came into Clemson with, like Ricky Sapp. We came in together and now we’re going to lead together. I’m looking forward to this season – we have a great team coming back.
CS: You shared the backfield for three years with James Davis and you now have the opportunity to be a featured back. Is there a part of you that wishes James was still by your side?
Spiller: Sooner or later guys have to leave; part ways, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. A lot of people say that I can’t really take all of that pounding and have that many carries. I did it before, so I’m looking forward to the challenge this year. It would be good to have him here, but he’s off to bigger and better things. and hopefully I’ll be where he’s at next year.
CS: I was surprised that James lasted until the sixth round; he deserved to go much higher than that. Have you spoken to him, and if you did what were his thoughts about lasting that long in the draft?
Spiller: He was happy, well he wasn’t happy were he went [in the draft], but he’s happy to be in Cleveland. He’s going into a great situation. He talked about playing with Jamal [Lewis], they both went to the same high school, and they’ve worked out together in the summer. He said that the offense in Cleveland is very similar to what we run [at Clemson]. He’s been working hard. The thing I told him is don’t send me to a game when there’s snow out there. [Laughs.] Being from Florida, we don’t get along with that cold weather. He’s very excited, ready to go for the season. He got No. 28; that’s the first thing he told me, that he was going to try to get No. 28. I told him that you have to show people what’s special about that number.
CS: You know James better than anybody, what kind of pro do you envision him being?
Spiller: He’s going to be a great runner. He’s a guy that’s going to come, work hard, learn the offense; he’s a very smart guy. I’m looking forward to the upcoming season for him. I think it’s going to be a special one for him. He wants to prove to everyone else that he was worthy of going earlier than where he went [in the draft]. I think he’s taking this season with a chip on his shoulder.
CS: Do you think teams underrated him during the draft process, and do you feel he can become a featured back in the NFL?
Spiller: I think he’s very capable of being a featured back in the NFL. He ran well between the tackles here; everyone questioned his speed, but he was able to run from defenders. I think, as he grows, he’s going to be a great running back in the NFL.
CS: I know you still have a season to play, but do you ever think, “Wow, I’m only a year away from the NFL?”
Spiller: Yeah, I listen to what the commentators say about each draft and what they look for in a running back, and I just work on those things. Pass protection is going to be very key for me this year, being that I’m the older guy of the running backs that we have. I’m really going to work on that this offseason. It’s astonishing to me that I have the opportunity to go to the next level. But right now, I’m taking it one day at a time, and I will enjoy this year. After the season, I’ll concentrate on the next step, which hopefully is the NFL.
CS: Do you have any regrets about not declaring for the NFL a year early?
Spiller: The one thing you have to know about me is that I don’t live with regrets.
CS: If you had 20 – 30 seconds to describe C.J. Spiller to a scout, what would you say?
Spiller: I’d say he’s a special guy. He’s a guy who has great class on and off the field. He can bring a lot of fans to the game. He’s very good with the community; a likable guy in the locker room; a guy you won’t see in the newspaper getting into any trouble. He’s a team leader; he leads like a quarterback, but happens to play running back. He can return kicks and catch the ball just as good as anyone in the country. And, he’s a running back or a receiver.
That’s the main thing I tell scouts; don’t look at my size, because my heart is bigger than what my body displays.
CS: Is there a player in the NFL today that you look up to and try to pattern your game after?
Spiller: I was always a Warrick Dunn fan; he’s my guy. Everyone questioned his size, but he’s played in the NFL for multiple years. And then, Marshall Faulk; if you look at Marshall Faulk there are similarities to what I can do: catch the ball out of the backfield, return kicks, all of that. Those are two players I relate my game to a whole lot.
CS: How did you develop your game as a receiver, and do you feel like you can flank out wide in certain formations?
Spiller: I think I can. Over the years, I really put an emphasis on catching the ball. I always spent time on the JUGS machine. And growing up with my brother playing baseball, it was either catch the baseball or get hit in the face. So, I really didn’t have a choice; I didn’t want to walk around with a busted nose. I really take great pride in catching the ball, because it can be a momentum changer. I think I can lineup in the slot and create those mismatches not only on the college level, but hopefully on the NFL level.
CS: Your production has gone down each year you’ve been at Clemson, and injuries have played a major role. Are you concerned about the amount of carries, touches you’ll receive this year?
Spiller: No, it doesn’t concern me at all. This is the best I’ve felt since my freshman year; I’m not really concerned about my body wearing down. I’m pretty smart, and I have a great supporting cast around me with Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington. They can go in and give me a breather if I need one. I’m not concerned about injuries or how many carries I get, I’m just going to go out there and play like I’ve been playing the last three years.
CS: Usually an athlete will choose one sport to focus on by their senior year, but you’re still competing in football and track. Has your coach or anyone from his staff asked you to just concentrate on football?
Spiller: Since I’ve been here, the coaches knew I was going to run track every year at Clemson. They love guys that play two sports; Kyle Parker plays on the baseball team for Clemson. They never question me about just focusing on football; a lot of other people have though. But I love track, it’s a sport that I enjoy doing, and it’s something I’d like to continue after my football days are over. It helps my endurance and keeps me in top shape.
CS: Is the training for football and track totally different, or do you see similarities between the two?
Spiller: I think they’re very different. In track you do a lot of pounding on your legs, and in football you do a lot of straight ahead running. But in track you do more curve work, coming out of blocks; more technical stuff. But it’s very comparable, I love it.
CS: Do you find yourself having to gain weight for football season after track season, or are you at the same weight for both?
Spiller: I’m pretty much at the same weight for both seasons. A lot of people are surprised when they see me on the track, because I’m bigger than everyone else. I don’t try to lose any weight, because I try to run off the talent that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gave me. This season, I’m not trying to gain any weight. A lot of people talk about gaining weight, but I think I’ll be fine where I’m at. My production hasn’t really been a factor in me gaining weight or losing weight.
CS: Last year, you guys were supposed to win the ACC and challenge for a National Championship, but it just didn’t come to fruition. There was a lot of adversity with the coaching change, injuries, etc… What do you think was the main reason why things didn’t come together last year?
Spiller: I think everyone, including myself, got caught up in the outside pressure and didn’t focus on the task at hand, which was going out there and working hard. I’m not saying we didn’t work hard, but going out every Saturday and lining up to compete against the opponent; we weren’t consistent. I think we had an example of that during the first game when Alabama came out of the gate and hit us right in the mouth. It kind of shocked us, because we thought they were going to get caught up in our hype. I think this year’s team is very different from last year’s team. We’re hungry, we’ve been there before, and we’ve been projected to win it and not projected to win it. This year should be very different. The coaches we have, with Coach Swinney being the head coach, he brings a lot of energy, not only to the team, but to the fans. I think we will have more sellout games this year than we’ve had since I’ve been here. I think it’s a very fun time to be a Tiger fan.
CS: After the coaching change, did you guys hold a players meeting, and what did you try to do to get things back on track?
Spiller: Yeah, there was a players meeting; you never want to lose a coach in the middle of the season. Coach Bowden was a great coach for us; it’s always sad to see a coach leave. When that happened, I think that brought us all closer together as a group and as a unit. We had to forget about what the outside people were going to say about us. We just went out there and had fun, stayed together and competed. From that turning point there, I think its lead us to where we are right now.
CS: With that said, do you feel like the window of opportunity has closed with all of the players that left: Cullen Harper, Aaron Kelly, James Davis, etc.? You’re the veteran now; the leader. Do you feel like that window is still open or do you think its shut?
Spiller: I still believe we have a chance to win the ACC and hopefully land in a great BCS game. We have a lot of pluses coming back. We don’t have James or Cullen, but we have a veteran offensive line, and just about all of our defense is back. Our chance of winning the ACC this year is probably more exciting than it’s been. But it’s all about how much you put in; whatever you put in is what you’re going to get out. This year we had everyone out there for Summer 1 [practice], which is something that’s never happened since I’ve been at Clemson. We want everyone back for Summer 2, so I think we’re going in the right direction. We have more chemistry amongst our team, we have more leadership. I’m looking forward to this year – it’s going to be a fun time.
CS: What do you want to accomplish this season?
Spiller: To be invited to New York for the Heisman. The Heisman is something I’ve always dreamed about since high school. I’ve been watching the Heisman presentations up to the point I’m at now. But if I don’t, this is another chance for me to play with my teammates, and hopefully we’ll win the ACC and get invited to a great BCS bowl game. That’s the main thing; we haven’t won a bowl game since I’ve been here. That’s really my individual goal: to win a bowl game and to get the fans at Clemson excited about Clemson football.
CS: To win the Heisman, you guys have to finish with a great record and you need sparkling statistics. Statistically, what do you wish to accomplish this year?
Spiller: I haven’t really sat down and thought about it. Like I said, I just got done with track and I’m just starting to get into the football mode. Probably over the next couple of weeks, I’ll sit down and spend time away from everyone and think about what I want to accomplish as an individual and as a team. Hopefully, I’ll share some of those ideas with the media in my later interviews. Right now, it really hasn’t crossed my mind what I want to accomplish as an individual.
CS: After a demanding and grueling track season, how hard is it transitioning to football in just a few short weeks?
Spiller: [Laughs.] The most important thing is to make sure I get the proper recovery. That’s going to be very key, considering that I’ve been going since January and really don’t have that much time to lay off going into football. My coaches make sure I get the right recovery, but once I report back to Clemson I’ll be ready to go for football.
CS: When do you guys hit the practice field?
Spiller: We’re going to hit the field, I think, July 1st.
CS: Wow, you don’t have a lot of time at all.
Spiller: Right now, I’m just down here in Florida, enjoying my time with family. Like I said, I’ll probably start working out next week, just to get back into the groove. Once I get back to South Carolina, I’m going to hit the ground running, because this is my last year, and I really want to prove to people that I can get it done.
CS: Will the coaches take it easy on you since you’re coming back from track?
Spiller: No sir, the coaches already know that I’m going to work hard. I don’t want to be patted on the back; I want to be pushed just like the other guys are being pushed. We’ll be smart around camp time, but this is the time when you get better and build that chemistry amongst your teammates. I want my teammates to see that I’m not going to take a play off, a day off, just because I’m coming off of track.
CS: Last question… If you could choose track or football as a profession, which one would you go with?Spiller: I’d do football; football is my love. Track is something I enjoy doing when football season is over. But football is my pride and joy. That’s what I really love and something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little boy.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: email@example.com.