Swinney: Keeping Spiller on special teams a chance worth taking
CLEMSON -- Asked if he thought about eliminating C.J. Spiller's role on special teams with the senior taking on feature-back responsibilities this fall, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney brushed off the question with a chuckle, thinking back to November in Chestnut Hill, Mass., when Spiller returned a kick 64 yards to set up the game-winning score.
"I wouldn't have this job if C.J. wasn't on special teams," Swinney said. "We don't win at Boston College if he is not a kickoff return guy. We just want him to touch the ball. To me (kick and punt returns), it's one of the easiest ways to get him the ball.
"When he's got the ball running full speed ahead, good things can happen."
But bad things can also happen
when a player running at full speed meets a coverage unit shifting into top gear. Keeping Spiller on return teams, which some experts call the most dangerous play in football, is a risk versus reward dilemma.
The prospect is certainly enticing. Swinney considers the return game the great wild card, and Spiller has excellent speed and elusiveness.
Spiller has 12 touchdowns of 50 yards or more, seven of 80 yards or more in his college career. He has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and averages 7.9 yards per punt return, and 25.4 yards per kick return for his career.
The 5-11, 195-pound Heisman hopeful was fourth in the ACC in punt return average last season (10.5 yards per return) and third in kickoff return average (27.2 yards), though eight of the league's primarily punt returners averaged at least 7.9 yards per return, and 12 ACC kick returners averaged at least 22 yards per kick return.
It brings into question whether those gains in yardage over a replacement returner are worth the risk.
"People ask me, 'Are you worried about him getting hurt?' " Swinney said. "All I know is when he touches the ball, it is a chance to win the game. It's a chance to strike up the band.
"He can get hurt at running back or catching a pass. There is no difference."
There is, however, a greater risk of being injured on special teams according to experts.
A Journal of Sports Medicine study released Thursday found 33 percent of high school football injuries occur on special teams, though special teams account for roughly 20 percent of total plays. University of Nebraska physics professor Timothy Gay, the author of the Football Physics: The Science of the Game, says the return game is the most dangerous situation in football.
It's a simple matter of Newton's laws, greater speed creates greater force, said Gay who does consulting work for pro and college teams. It is the kicking game where players most often reach full speed. Gay said if a coach is concerned over injury to a feature player, he would advise against playing them on special teams.
"I think returning punts is more dangerous than being a running back," Gay said. "You are tackled harder on average. A running back doesn't have a chance to build up full momentum … often he is tackled by a linebacker that may not be moving at all. Returning a punt, (coverage teams) are coming at you as fast as they can run."
However, Gay has a caveat to his physics work -- physiology.
"Everyone's muscles obey the laws of physics," Gay said. "Physics serves as an envelope of what can happen, but how musculature is coordinated, how you use your muscles … some guys stay healthy, some guy just can't stay healthy.
"I would say in general if you have got a guy who makes plays and doesn't seem to be injury prone, use him."
Spiller may be one of those immune to injury, having played in 38 of a possible 39 games during three seasons in a time-share role. He says he has no concerns over his increased role.
"I'm very comfortable in the return game," Spiller said. "I have no problem going back there. I'm not worried about getting fatigued. I'm going to be back there."
To avoid tiring Spiller, Clemson will lean on young talented backs in Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington to spell Spiller in the running game. Swinney said he doubts Spiller will reach or exceed 25 carries in a game.
Swinney said he has not studied how other teams have used feature backs in the return game. He did note Reggie Bush excelled in a versatile role at Southern Cal and Adrian Peterson returned kicks at Oklahoma.
"I think he can be whatever," Swinney said of Spiller. "We really don't know (his ceiling). He has had a dual role for three years now.
"I don't think there is a limitation on him."