CLEMSON - Fourteen months ago C.J. Spiller made the biggest decision of his life when he skipped the NFL draft to return to Clemson for his senior season.
The dynamic running back knew people thought he was crazy to turn down the millions that being a first-round pick would bring, while risking the possibility of a career-altering injury playing one last time for the Tigers. Even his mother wanted him to turn pro.
Today, however, he looks pretty smart. He has a sociology degree because he came back to finish school. But he also has a better career opportunity lined up after a spectacular season has vaulted him up the rankings before April's NFL draft.
"It was the best decision," Spiller said after NFL pro day at Clemson on Thursday. ""The main goal was to graduate."
While he earned his diploma in the classroom, he also merited the equivalent of a doctorate on the football field. The list of honors is long: ACC Player of the Year, unanimous first-team All-American, sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. His eye-popping all-purpose statistics showed his ability as a runner, receiver and kick returner.
He enters this year's draft as the top-rated running back by most analysts, which has Clemson coach Dabo Swinney even happier with how things fell into place.
"The kind of person he is, you want it for him," Swinney said. "You know the agony he went through last year when he made a tough decision. It worked out well for him."
Swinney, who spent much of Thursday chatting with Carolina Panthers coach John Fox, believes Spiller is a lock to go in the top 15 picks and may have pushed his way into the top 10. He cites Spiller's character being as significant as his skills.
"They all wish they could have him," said Swinney, while noting that teams are notoriously circumspect when discussing players they like. "A guy like C.J., who they've obviously seen on film and his stock is already high, all of a sudden they to get to see how he responds to questions, his demeanor. That's where he'll blow you away. You put that with the talent, and that arrow keeps going up."
The Lake Butler, Fla., native takes the compliments in stride as easily as he does a handoff. He's as low-key off the field as he is flashy on it.
"I try to be myself when I'm talking to people," Spiller said.
He said not a lot of teams are talking to him, while emphasizing he has no real preference for where he goes.
"Wherever I land, it'll be a blessing for me and my family," he said. "It's a privilege to play this game anywhere. I'll be happy and satisfied to go there and help the organization win a Super Bowl."
He does not know if he will be invited to New York for the draft. He might be at Radio City Music Hall or at his family home, where he insists there will be a sign on the door that says, "No Phones But Mine."
Wherever he is, he's not likely to have to wait long to hear his name called. A number of mock drafts by analysts have the 5-foot-11, 196-pound Spiller going either No. 13 to San Francisco or No. 14 to Seattle. But after the NFL combine in Indianapolis, where he ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash, the third-best time overall, and a solid Pro Day, where he put on a strong display in front of NFL evaluators in a steady rain, he sports the appearance of a man who's moving up the charts.
"There really was no need to run it (the 40-yard dash Thursday)," Spiller said. "Why waste the energy? Everyone knows that I'm fast."
But Spiller wasn't about to disappoint the coaches and scouts who made their way to Clemson by not working out, even if the weather was far from ideal.
Swinney smiled as he related Spiller's reaction, "C.J. said, 'Hey, let's go.'"
"It wasn't the best conditions," Spiller said. "But you never know, it might rain in the game. So I was able to get some work done."
He drew several words of praise from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars coaches who were working out the running backs as he deftly glided through drills on the slick turf.
Spiller's star power is evident everywhere he goes. In the morning portion of Pro Day held at Clemson's indoor track facility, he leisurely warmed up in his black sweatsuit alongside receiver Jacoby Ford, another speedster who is commanding a lot of draft interest.
While the other former Clemson players ran their 40s, Spiller waited for his chance in the jumps. When he finally discarded his sweatsuit to prepare for the vertical jump, all eyes turned to him. As he stepped up to jump, the audible hum in the building turned to silence.
He later moved to the standing broad jump, where he leaped 10-feet, 6-inches, displaying the athleticism that makes him a human highlight reel on the field.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has called Spiller an "elusive, dynamic game-breaker." During the season, he wrote: "I get asked a lot what I see in Spiller and one thing I know is this: The ability to put six points on the board in an instant in a variety of ways is what makes him so highly thought of in NFL circles."
Spiller is a YouTube phenomenon, where his electrifying runs are catalogued so draftniks can watch his No. 28 turn into a blur as he runs away from defenders. His 7,588 career all-purpose running yards are second in Division I history. Of his 50 career touchdowns, 21 were 50 yards or longer, with an NCAA record-tying eight of them on kick returns.
Swinney speaks of all the positive attention Spiller brought his senior season to Clemson, which played in the ACC championship game and the Music City Bowl on the way to a 9-5 record. He also liked how Spiller helped draw extra attention to his teammates from the NFL scouts.
Spiller has not allowed himself to worry about his status or the chatter that surrounds the draft on the Internet. He mocks all the mock drafts.
"No one knows where they're going to go," he said. "If you get caught up in that stuff, it'll get you off-track."
Spoken like a guy whose life has stayed on track for the past 14 months.