(Editor's note: Running back C.J. Spiller, a seven-year NFL veteran who spent time this season with the New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets, was the 2009 ACC Offensive Player of the Year at Clemson. He offers his thoughts on the Tigers' Monday night title-game matchup against Alabama and his experiences with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, as told to College Football 24/7's Chase Goodbread).
Clemson is such a special place for me. It's like I never left.
Coach Dabo Swinney and I have a unique relationship, like a father and son. I texted him before the Fiesta Bowl and wished him well. I told him it was time to go get it done, and he texted me back the fist-pump emoji. So I knew he was ready to go.
I love being around this program. I live here in Greenville, S.C., and I'm building a house here about 15 minutes from Clemson. I want to be involved. I go over there when I can, but I don't want to bombard them, because it's their time. I had my time. But when I do go over there, I try to just encourage or offer a little wisdom, help however I can, especially in the running backs room. I'm in contact with Wayne (Gallman), talking to him about his game. I was able to get to more Clemson games this year than I normally can. I would've rather been playing on Sundays, but I was able to be around Clemson more because of it. I went down for the Georgia Tech game. I went to a couple home games, and I can't wait to get to Tampa.
When coach Tommy Bowden got fired (in 2008), coach Swinney took over as the interim coach for the remainder of the year. My senior year, they took the interim tag off him and made him the head coach. He played receiver at Alabama and he's a genius at finding mismatches all over the field. He's so down-to-earth personality-wise. What you see is what you get. There is no phoniness. He treats every player the same -- there's no favoritism with him.
That just goes back to his background of being a walk-on and having to earn his way onto Alabama's team. He didn't have an easier path like scholarship guys do. I think that played a role in how he's coached. Starters get treated no differently than the fifth-string walk-on. He's able to relate to every player on the team because of that. He knows what a hard upbringing is, because he's been through it. I think that's why I relate to him so well. He also has a Christian faith that you can see. He doesn't press it on guys, but lets you know where he stands with it.
I'll see him this week when I watch the team practice (in Tampa). We always embrace with a hug. With the way my season went this year, he would reach out and make sure I was in good spirits. He's very encouraging. You don't get that from every head coach. And it's not just me. Talk to any other guy.
Before my senior year, coach Swinney put a lot of trust in me. We had a long conversation when I was deciding whether I was going to leave for the draft or come back for my senior year. We both looked at the pros and cons and he said, "C.J., if you come back, you'd better saddle up. Because I'm going to ride you. You're going to be our mule. We'll get you the ball as much as possible." And he was telling the truth, and that year helped me get drafted higher. I had turf toe that year, but we didn't let that slow us down and I kept getting a lot of touches. And he always knew how many touches I had at halftime of every game. The first three years, me and James Davis were a thunder and lightning combination. That last year, coach Swinney said, "C.J., this is your team."
Facing the Tide
I got a chance to see Alabama's program just coming into its own under coach Saban in 2008, when we played them in Atlanta to start the season. We didn't know what to expect. I don't know if we handled being ranked highly very well, and I don't think Alabama was ranked very high, because they weren't a championship program at that time like they are now.
We couldn't get anything going offensively. That was our first true matchup to see how we stacked up as a team, and they got us pretty good. When I was in the game they played us one way, when James (Davis) was in the game, they played it totally different. Really all I want to remember about that game was the kickoff return I had for a touchdown to start the second half. We had a kickoff return earlier in the game and I got tackled on their sideline, and I was maybe five feet away from coach Saban, and I told him, "That was close. If you keep playing with fire, we're going to take one back." He said "We're going to keep kicking it to you."
We made an adjustment at halftime for the kickoff to get a block we needed, and I just found a crease. I used my speed and vision to try to spark us and took it to the house. They were stout up front. You could sense after that game what they were building: a very tough, physical defense, and on the offensive side, a running game that would pound the ball and wear down defenses in the second half.
I'm really excited to see what Wayne Gallman will do in the NFL. I think he's one of the top three backs in the country. He's a physical runner. He's faster than people think and he can catch it out of the backfield, but the biggest thing any rookie has to do is pass protection. And he's put it on tape that he can pass protect.
That's a thing I challenged him on this year -- be physical with blitzers, don't just cut block them all the time. In the league, some coaches like that, but some don't. And at the end of the day, you've got to protect a $20 million quarterback. It was something I had to learn, taking on bigger guys. I was taught some different techniques by different coaches on that. He really changed how he pass protects and it's helped him. I think he's a top-three back, hands down.
(Saints and former Alabama RB) Mark Ingram and I were talking some trash to each other before last year's Alabama-Clemson game. We were both honorary captains of last year's game, so it was pretty exciting to walk on the field. You would've thought we were both suiting up the way we were acting. I'm pretty sure I'll see him down there, and I'm sure we'll have some kind of (side bet) on it.
It's going to be a fun atmosphere. Two of the best teams in the country going at it one more time. Even though I was an honorary captain, I didn't speak to the team before the game last year. There's not much to say when you reach a game like that -- it's all about execution. That's for coach Swinney. He knows the right things to say, so I don't have to do any of that. It's a big game that can change lives forever, but coach Swinney gets everyone's mind right all week.
As far as the game goes, I think it'll be just like last year -- a very physical game and a very high-scoring game. I think people will write Clemson off because Alabama has a great team and a great defense. I believe Clemson is clicking at the right time and there are some weapons in the offense that weren't there last year, like Mike Williams and Deon Cain. People forget Mike Williams didn't even play last year. Nick Saban is going to do some things to take him away, but Mike's a special talent. And him just being out there can open things up for some other guys to make more plays.
The team came a long way to get back into this game and now they have another chance to finish it. I'm sure coach Saban will have something up his sleeve, but I have Clemson winning it and being national champions. The team that has the fewest turnovers will be the team that wins. If we take care of the ball, I know we'll win. I'll be on the sideline. Come Monday night, I'll be there, jacked up. The atmosphere is so electric. I can't even wait.