CLEMSON -- Life after Spiller. The prospect is inevitable, and troubling for the Tigers.
"I don't want to think about it," said tight end Michael Palmer, a senior who won't even be around next season.
Some are looking ahead, wondering if Death Valley will become an offensive wasteland next season sans Clemson's electric Heisman hopeful.
Dabo Swinney is bracing for the prospect, noting C.J. Spiller, a player he calls a "program-changer," will be a ring of honor member unless he "robs a bank,"
"Only 19 more days with C.J.," said Swinney, calculating the rest of the regular season earlier this week. "What are we going to do?"
It's a good question.
After all, Spiller accounts for 11 of Clemson's 27 touchdowns against FBS opponents this season. After all, Spiller has 12 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage and four kick returns for touchdowns.
But perhaps losing a player in the top five of Heisman watch lists isn't as dire as it seems. The Tigers say their offense isn't a static unit, rather a developing, potential-rich group, loaded with emerging assets ready to pick up Spiller's production slack.
Start at quarterback.
After an up and down start, freshman Kyle Parker is gaining confidence and becoming more consistent, leading the Tigers to at least 38 points in four straight games, a first in program history.
Also consider the leaps a second-year starter at quarterback can make. And you don't have to start your search far -- just look at the ACC's Jacory Harris, Tyrod Taylor and Christian Ponder.
Before suffering a season- ending injury Saturday night, Ponder led the ACC in passing yards (2,717), had a 14-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and was completing 68.8 percent of his passes. Last season as a first-year starter, Ponder completed 55.7 percent of his passes and had nearly as many interceptions (13) as TDs (14).
Taylor and Harris had similar jumps.
Taylor's touchdown-to- interception ratio has gone from 2-to-7 last year, to 9-to-3 this season. Harris led the Canes to three wins during a daunting September, which few thought possible, and leads the ACC in passing efficiency.
Palmer said he made his greatest improvement between his first and second year playing.
"I remember one or two plays from my first game, and I can remember all of the bowl game, because of how much slower everything seemed," Palmer said. "It'll be that type of change for Kyle as well."
Improvement has already taken place for Parker, who has a 9-to-4 TD-to-interception ratio in his last four games, completing 60 of 100 passes (60 percent) for 770 yards (7.7 yards per attempt). In his first five games, Parker threw five touchdowns against five interceptions, completing 74 of 152 pass attempts (48 percent) for (5.9 ypa).
"As the speed of the game slows down, he's really started to play better, faster, made better decisions," Palmer said.
Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier echoed Palmer.
"I think (the greatest leap) is between their first year of significant playing time and their second," Napier said. "They went out and maybe stumbled around a bit and got hit in the mouth a few times and said, 'Hey maybe this isn't as easy as I thought it would be.' ''
Napier elected not to address what he thought Parker's upside is when asked, but earlier this season he compared his physical tools to New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees.
Another area of growth is from the young coaching staff itself, which adjusted following the Maryland game, deploying less spread and more power and two tight end sets.
"I'm no different than a Xavier Dye or Kyle Parker," said a candid Napier. "I'm like any of you guys. The first year doing your jobs, you were probably better midseason that those first couple of articles."
The third way the loss of Spiller might be eased is with a player who was confused as Spiller by the PA announcer on a long run against Florida State -- Moncks Corner native Andre Ellington.
While there might never be a Clemson player as versatile or as explosive as Spiller, the slight (5-10, 180 pounds) but shifty Ellington has been the Tigers most productive runner per carry (7.4 yards per carry). Ellington has been more effective, more decisive in his running, than presumed heir Jamie Harper.
"Andre's one of my favorite players," Napier said.
Said Swinney: "Andre has stepped up big time. He's an electric little player. He's tough and hard to tackle."
Still, there has never been a Spiller-like player at Clemson and there might never be again. Swinney's message: Appreciate him, and ride him, while you can.
Spiller on award list
Spiller was named as one of 10 semifinalists Thursday for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top running back. Three finalists will be announced Nov. 23, and the winner is named Dec. 10 in Orlando, Fla., during ESPNU's College Football Awards.
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