Spiller will be heavily involved in offense

PITTSFORD, N.Y. – C.J. Spiller(notes) says he’s never entered a season setting any major individual goals, but Buffalo Bills safety Donte Whitner(notes) gladly did so for him.

“With his big-play capability, with his work ethic, if he stays healthy and the offensive line is doing their thing, then he’ll definitely be offensive rookie of the year,” Whitner said.

Even though the Bills were theoretically well-positioned at running back, Spiller was taken ninth overall in this year’s NFL draft because of his explosiveness and versatility. His many gifts are much needed for an offense that finished 28th in the league in scoring (16.1 ppg) and 30th in yards 273.9 (ypg) last season, and has perhaps the most dire quarterbacking situation in the league.

“We’re going to ask him to do a lot,” first-year Bills head coach Chan Gailey said. “He’s going to have to be very involved in the offense this year.”

When the Bills drafted Spiller, they weren’t lacking for talent at running back. Fred Jackson(notes) was a 1,000-yard rusher last season and Marshawn Lynch(notes), reportedly available on the trade market during the offseason, made the Pro Bowl just two seasons ago. However, neither has Spiller’s combination of speed, moves, vision and acceleration. Even more important, neither is quite as versatile.

Cranking out 7,588 career all-purpose yards at Clemson, which ranks second in NCAA Division I history, Spiller can work in a variety of ways.

“I got good hands,” Spiller said. “I can split out wide. I can do the return game. Of course, run the ball. I think the more a running back can do, the more value he has and the more advantage he has on the defense.

“I don’t ever get in the mindset of how many times I carry it. I just know when my name is called, I got to be ready to roll.”

His 31-yard touchdown run in last week’s preseason win against the Indianapolis Colts in Toronto illustrates the different dimension he brings. He made three defenders miss en route to the end zone.

“Anytime he touches it, he has a chance to go 60 or 80 [yards] or how far you’re away from the goal line,” Gailey said. “So you never want to discount a guy that can have that kind of impact on a game, especially in today’s game because we’re a game of big plays.”

The Bills ranked 12th in rushing plays of 20-plus yards (12) last season. The passing game, however, ranked 29th with 31 such plays. With the return of quarterbacks Trent Edwards(notes) and Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes), and the team not making a major pickup at wide receiver – the Bills actually parted ways with Terrell Owens(notes) – Spiller could become a popular target out of the backfield. Who knows, he may even take a few snaps.

During practice Sunday at St. John Fisher College, Spiller was behind center, faking a pitch and trotting to the opposite direction. He seems tailor-made to run the Wildcat offense.

“I’m sure somewhere down the line, we’ll get to something like that,” Gailey said. “Yeah. … The diversity he gives you is really good.”

However, if Gailey had his druthers, he’d make defenses figure out how to stop Spiller, Jackson, Lynch and receiver Lee Evans(notes).

“If we can put a little bit of doubt about who’s getting the ball, then we’ll be better off because we got about four or five, if they touch it, good things can happen,” he said.

But with Jackson (broken bone in left hand) and Lynch (high ankle sprain) injured, Spiller may have to carry the load early in the regular season.

“If I’m called to carry it 25 times, I know I’ve prepared my body well in the offseason to do it,” Spiller said.

For all his talent, at 5-foot-11, 196 pounds, Spiller has doubters. Can he carry the ball 20 to 25 times a game for an entire season?

Clemson running backs coach Andre’ Powell compared Spiller to another NFL halfback he coached who had a long, stellar NFL career.

Colts safety Antoine Bethea(notes) is unable to bring down Spiller.
(Brad White/Getty Images)

“They said the same thing about Tiki Barber,” said Powell, who coached him at Virginia. “He played for 10 years and carried the load.”

One glaring difference though: Spiller, who also ran track at Clemson, has the speed to match any NFL halfback.

“Some of my teammates and I were debating who’s probably the fastest back in the league between Chris Johnson and him,” Whitner said. “… If he gets out on the open, not too many guys, even defensive backs, are going to catch him.”

Spiller rushed for 1,212 yards as a senior at Clemson despite, as Powell said, running inside zone, isolation and power plays between the tackles and playing the entire season with a turf toe injury.

“I think he can sustain 20 carries a game in addition to returning kicks and punts,” Powell continued. “He’s a phenomenal athlete and he’s a tough kid.”

Former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, who recruited Spiller out of Union City High School in Lake Butler, Fla., said Spiller can be the main man in Buffalo, just not in a traditional running back fashion.

“[Spiller] can run it up in there, but not 25 times a game,” said Bowden, who coached against Gailey when Gailey was at Georgia Tech from 2002-07. “… He needs to be put on the edge some.

“I think he can be the main guy if they use him right and I think Chan [Gailey] will because his specialty is kick return, punt return, catching flare passes, screens and then run it up in there, but it’s not only run it up in there like some offenses.”

Exactly how he’ll be used is yet to be determined, but maybe the Bills will rely on him enough to make Whitner’s prediction come true.

Duane Rankin covers colleges and pros and writes a weekly column for the Erie Times-News (Pa.)

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Updated Wednesday, Aug 25, 2010