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July 26, 2009GREENSBORO, N.C. - Last summer, the entire Clemson team dominated headlines at the Atlantic Coast Conference Media Days. This year, much of the attention instead focuses on one Tiger.
C.J. Spiller figures to handle the hoopla much better than his teammates dealt with it last season.
Spiller turned down the opportunity for an early NFL payday to return to Clemson for his senior season, even though he was projected as a first- or second-round draft pick. Clemson officials have launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for Spiller by printing life-size posters of him in a repeat of a promotional strategy they conducted 25 years earlier for star defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry.
The 4,000 posters for the general public disappeared from area convenience stores in three hours, though the school has produced 700 more to distribute to the media. Those posters were the biggest topic of conversation on the first day of the ACC Media Days gathering at the Grandover Resort.
"It's a real honor," Spiller said, "and the fans are excited about it."
Referring to Spiller as a Heisman Trophy candidate seems overly optimistic. Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, defending Heisman winner Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and 2007 recipient Tim Tebow of Florida enter the season as overwhelming favorites. Besides, no Clemson player has ever finished in the top five of the Heisman balloting, though Steve Fuller placed sixth in 1978.
Then again, Clemson fans might construct a trophy - or even a statue - in Spiller's honor if he somehow could deliver the ACC title that has eluded the Tigers since 1991.
Last season epitomized the frustration Clemson fans have felt for most of the past two decades.
The Tigers were returning All-ACC candidates at every skill position on offense. They were the presumed conference front-runner. Clemson's No. 9 position in the initial Associated Press poll represented the school's highest preseason ranking since 1991.
All those expectations fell to pieces almost immediately. Clemson opened the season with an embarrassing 34-10 loss to Alabama and dropped four of its first seven games before former coach Tommy Bowden was forced out. The Tigers needed a late-season surge just to become bowl eligible.
Clemson won't have to worry about such expectations this season.
The Tigers probably won't enter the season in the national rankings. Two-time defending conference champion Virginia Tech is the prohibitive favorite to win the league title, while Clemson is breaking in a new starting quarterback.
That hasn't reduced Spiller's enthusiasm as he heads into his senior season. He believes the team's increase in intensity will make up for the decrease in star power.
"You see guys working harder, going the extra mile, doing the extra work they have to do to make themselves better players and to make their team better," Spiller said. "That's the main difference this year."
Spiller's sense of urgency is evident from his choice of jewelry. He wears a collection of bracelets on each wrist. On his left wrist is the most recent addition to his collection - a bracelet bearing the motto, "It's Time In '09," which Clemson's skill-position players gave one another.
He also wears on his right wrist a bracelet he was given before last season. That bracelet and its motto, "Great In '08," offer an unwelcome reminder that preseason slogans don't mean a whole lot unless they're backed up with strong performances.
"Last year, knowing we had all that hype and were ranked so high going into the season, I think we kind of took people for granted," Clemson defensive end Ricky Sapp said. "The games we lost kind of showed that. This year, being that we're flying under the radar, I think it will be a really good year for us."
There's reason to believe Clemson could overachieve this season as much as it underachieved last season.
Clemson returns eight starters from a defense that ranked in the top 20 last year in points allowed and yards allowed. The offensive line, a weakness of last year's team, should emerge as a strength now that it returns five starters. The Tigers also had an entire offseason to adjust to coach Dabo Swinney, who replaced Bowden midway through last season.
Of course, none of that would have mattered if Spiller had left for the NFL. Spiller went back and forth on his decision. Even his mother thought he should leave for the early payday. Spiller finally decided he couldn't leave without taking care of some unfinished business.
"At the end of the day, I wanted to get back with my teammates and finish what we started," Spiller said.
Spiller enters the season as arguably the ACC's most indispensable player. Clemson has no chance of getting to the ACC Championship Game in Tampa, Fla., without a big season from him.
And that's an awful lot of pressure to put on a guy who never has run for 1,000 yards or has caught as many as 35 passes in a single season.
Although Spiller never put together that one dominant season while splitting carries with James Davis the past three years, he still is generally regarded as one of the nation's most explosive and versatile players. Opponents marvel at his ability to score from anywhere on the field.
"He can change the game in one play," Boston College defensive end Jim Ramella said.
Spiller frequently has done just that.
He is 921 yards away from the ACC record for career all-purpose yardage, a mark he should reach by the midway point of the season. He has scored from at least 50 yards out a school-record 12 times, including eight touchdowns of at least 80 yards.
Florida State linebacker Dekoda Watson offered the best description of the frustration that Spiller causes opposing defenses. Spiller turned a screen pass into a 44-yard touchdown in a 41-27 loss to Florida State last season.
"No matter how hard I was running, his image just kept on getting smaller until he got to the end zone," Watson said.
Spiller has scored a touchdown four different ways - by passing the ball, running from scrimmage, catching a pass and returning a kickoff. And if that weren't enough, Spiller also is the first Clemson running back to be named All-ACC and Academic All-ACC in the same semester. He enters his senior season just 12 credit hours shy of earning a degree in sociology.
He cemented his status as a folk hero around campus by returning to school for his senior year. Now he wants to make the most of his decision.
Spiller understands what's at stake. He has revealed a different side of his personality this summer while preparing for his last season in a Clemson uniform.
"I find myself being a more vocal leader than I had been the past two years," Spiller said. "That's been the biggest adjustment, being that vocal guy. I'd kind of let my actions speak for themselves. This year, I have the mindset that I have to be a more vocal leader for our team to be successful."
Spiller's willing to make that adjustment, even if it doesn't necessarily fit his soft-spoken nature. As much as he loves his bracelets, Spiller would rather be wearing an ACC championship ring.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.