Ron Morris

Morris: Teams lose often when kicking to Spiller

Clemson running back C.J. Spiller evades Boston College safety Wes Davis No. 45 on a punt return.
Clemson running back C.J. Spiller evades Boston College safety Wes Davis No. 45 on a punt return.

It is the million-dollar question surrounding Clemson football these days: Why do teams continue to kick and punt the ball to C.J. Spiller?

Spiller has three kickoff returns for touchdowns of 90 or more yards and one punt return of 72 yards for a score. With six career kickoff-return touchdowns, he is one shy of setting the NCAA record. Every time he touches the ball on a return, he is a threat to finish the play in the end zone.

"He's an unbelievable return guy because he's zero to 60 in a flash," Dabo Swinney says. "He's so explosive. He's got excellent vision, and he's very strong. He can run through tackles."

The alternative to kicking to Spiller seems pretty simple - and smart. Punt or kick the ball out of bounds, you fools. You might surrender field position on punts. On kickoffs, you will pay dearly by giving Clemson the ball at its 40-yard line.

But based on Spiller's performance this season, kicking out of bounds is a small price to pay. Otherwise, you run the risk of seeing the back side of Spiller's No. 28 jersey. Yet, other than Wake Forest and Coastal Carolina, every Clemson opponent has taken that chance at least twice.

"I don't know why they keep kicking it to him," Swinney says, "but I root for it every week. I wouldn't kick it to him. I'm a believer. He's made me a believer. Somebody else would have to beat me."

Amazingly, Clemson's average starting position following a kickoff is its 41-yard line. So it stands to reason that teams would be better off kicking it out of bounds and avoiding the high risk of Spiller taking one 90 yards, or even 38 yards - his average, which ranks second nationally.

Included in his 12 kickoff returns was the season opener for 96 yards against Middle Tennessee, a 92-yarder against Maryland and a 90-yarder against Miami. Of his five punt returns, one was for 50 yards against Middle Tennessee and one was for 72 yards and a touchdown against Boston College.

If Florida State kicks or punts it to Spiller on Saturday, there is a good chance he will set the NCAA career record for kickoff/punt touchdown returns, one more than the six apiece by Anthony Davis of Southern California (1972-74) and Ashlan Davis of Tulsa (2004-05).

Six Clemson opponents have kicked or punted the ball Spiller's way. Georgia Tech probably did the best job containing him; he returned kicks for 35, 22 and 21 yards.

That kind of coverage likely makes other teams believe they, too, can keep Spiller from breaking a big one.

"Sometimes you just challenge your (coverage) guys," Swinney says. "You say, 'We've got to do our jobs and go cover, and let's keep this guy from the 30-yard line in because we can't afford to let them start drives on the 40-, 45-yard lines.'

"It's an interesting cat-and-mouse game."

It's a game in which Spiller usually plays the cat.

When asked if he was surprised teams continue to kick the ball to him, Spiller laughed.

"Not really. That's what they're coached to do," Spiller says. "I can't control if they do or not. Georgia Tech did a great job of covering kicks. ... So I'm not surprised, because teams have to have confidence in their guys being down field and covering."

Confidence is one thing. Stupidity is quite another.

You have to believe Florida State will play it smart and either kick or punt out of bounds or to a place on the field where Spiller can't be found. Jody Allen is the special teams coach at Florida State and was the Seminoles' lead recruiter for Spurrier when the running back was coming out of Lake Butler, Fla., four years ago.

Spiller, who chose Clemson over Florida State and Florida, said he has not talked to Allen this week, but he might corner him Saturday and urge him to kick the ball deep.

Allen is not revealing Florida State's strategy. But he said Spiller is a weapon in part because Clemson puts speedsters Jacoby Ford and Andre Ellington on kickoff returns as well.

"You know how dangerous (Spiller) is," Allen says. "But the short guys are dangerous, too. You've got Jacoby Ford and (Ellington). You kick it to them and they get their hands on it quicker and farther up the field, and they are dangerous."

No doubt, Clemson puts opponents in a compromising position with Spiller returning kickoffs and punts. Pooch kicks. Dribblers. Out-of-bounds boots. Onside kicks. They all seem like better options than letting Spiller get his hands on the ball.

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