Clemson University

More touches for Spiller leads to Clemson's offensive awakening

Clemson's C.J. Spiller (28) runs for a touchdown as Duke's Catron Gainey tries to stop him during the first half Saturday in Clemson.
Clemson's C.J. Spiller (28) runs for a touchdown as Duke's Catron Gainey tries to stop him during the first half Saturday in Clemson.

CLEMSON -- Pulling out a trick he has used before, Clemson running back C.J. Spiller used the giant scoreboard screen as his rear view mirror last weekend, cranking up the afterburners again after spotting an approaching defender at the end of his 83-yard touchdown catch.

Rarely do objects come closer to Spiller than they appear, making hindsight about how the dynamic junior used to be employed all the more head-scratching.

While interim coach Dabo Swinney has removed the kid gloves from the Tigers' passing game, the equally substantive change has been the offense's gradual shift to utilizing Spiller as its focal point.

"This game is not complicated," Swinney said. "You have good players, you get it to them. We've tried to do a good job of spreading the ball around and everybody having a role, but making sure your horses are getting plenty of water."

Spiller's trough is overflowing relative to what he was fed before Swinney took over, and Clemson's offense has rehydrated as a result.

Since returning from a sprained ankle, Spiller has averaged 153.3 yards of total offense over three games while accounting for four of the team's 10 touchdowns.

Going into today's noon contest at Virginia, the Tigers have scored 27, 27 and 31 points the past three games, respectively, after 27 had been their high against four previous Football Championship Subdivision opponents.

The correlation can hardly be written off as coincidence, especially when considering Spiller averaged 81.7 yards of total offense in his three healthy games against Alabama, N.C. State and Maryland.

"Coach Swinney and coach (Billy) Napier have done a good job these last couple of weeks of just putting me out in space and letting me run around and make plays," Spiller said. "That's the thing I think we were missing. We just needed a couple of more plays made, and I'm trying to fill that void as much as possible."

In truth, the difference figures to be how and how much Napier, the acting coordinator, has gotten Spiller the ball -- combined with the plays that set up those touches.

Tracing to the start of the 2007 season, Spiller failed to net more than 12 offensive touches under Spence in half (eight) of the team's games against FBS foes. Clemson went 2-6 in those games.

Spence constructed his approach around a one-back running game that fit senior back James Davis' strengths, but when problems on the offensive line or the downfield passing game were exposed, the Tigers screeched to a halt.

Swinney, formerly the receivers coach, and Napier, a former Furman quarterback, sought to remedy by breathing assertive life into the passing game.

The obvious targets of emphasis suddenly became senior Aaron Kelly and Spiller, a natural pass-catcher whose elusiveness poses the greatest threat when he is beyond a clogged line of scrimmage.

Sixteen of Spiller's 25 catches this season have come the last three games, and even without the 83-yard screen he scored on against Duke, he would be averaging nearly triple the receiving yards from the season's first half.

"The more times we can get it in his hands, the better," Napier said. "He's electric. He can go."

Said Davis: "When you have a guy like that, if I'm an offensive coordinator, I'm going to try to get the ball in his hands as much as possible. He's the one who makes a lot of plays for this team."

• Who: Clemson Tigers (5-5 overall, 3-4 ACC) at Virginia Cavaliers (5-5, 3-3), Noon

• TV: WMYT (Cable channel 12 in Rock Hill)

• Radio: WRHI-AM (1340)