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Spillman Finds Stability in San Francisco

Posted Mar 6, 2012


In signing a three-year contract extension that will keep him with the San Francisco 49ers through the 2014 season, C.J. Spillman has ensured competitive special teams play will continue in the Bay Area. The fourth-year safety, who was signed by the 49ers five games into the 2010 regular season, has found a home with the 49ers thanks to his all-out style of play. Spillman’s skills: speed, sound tackling and serious on-field demeanor make him one of the best special teamers in the league today.

Here’s his story.

TONY MONTANA SQUAD

C.J. Spillman didn’t sulk or sour when the 49ers signed two safeties last offseason. With Donte Whitner brought in to play alongside re-signed safety Dashon Goldson, Spillman’s role on defense changed. Just. Like. That. He became a goal line cornerback, and a backup safety, but more importantly, Spillman mastered his role as a blistering gunner on special teams.

When some players might look at his situation as a means to complain or seek a trade, Spillman went out and produced. In 2011, Spillman led the 49ers with 19 special teams tackles, which also tied for fourth-most in the National Football League. Spillman represented the 49ers as a special teams captain on occasion, too.

In addition, Spillman went on to record the final tackle of the NFC Divisional Playoff round as the New Orleans Saints tried a lateral-heavy play after falling victim to a play that will forever be known as “Vernon Post.”

Moments like that highlight Spillman’s impact on a 49ers team that came just short of reaching the Super Bowl. It also underscores how special teams became a huge part of San Francisco’s 14-win season. “It’s amazing how special teams played a big part in every game,” Spillman said in a phone interview with 49ers.com. “A lot of people don’t really know to pay attention to it. But I think last year, with the guys we had on special teams, we made the best of every opportunity that was given to us.”

Not only did Spillman and the 49ers special teams make the most of it, throughout 2011, the group inspired a legion of Faithful fans to get behind their brand of play, and more importantly, the squad’s chosen pre-kickoff anthem, Future’s “Tony Montana.”

Soon after, videos from the group’s kickoff team swaying side-to-side were all over the internet.

“I think everybody on special teams should take pride in it,” Spillman said. “The fans and the guys on the team were getting into it. When you look at the 31 other teams that are out there, nobody has anything like what we have going on. And that’s what sets us apart from a lot of teams.”

PASSION FOR THE GAME

Like many of his teammates on the 49ers, Spillman’s love for football developed at an early age. Growing up in Louisville, Ky., Spillman was influenced to play the game by his father Claude Sr., who played collegiately at Western Kentucky and went on to play five games for the Dallas Cowboys. “It was something that eventually grew on me,” said the younger Spillman, who now goes by C.J. “As long as I can remember, my dad and my whole family, all the guys, they were really into football.”

Spillman followed his father’s footsteps and soon found himself starring as a running back and defensive back at Louisville Central High School. Looking back, Spillman thanks his father for being the “driving force” in his football career. Though running the ball was very different from his future profession on defense, Spillman truly enjoyed his time as a running back. “Everybody wants to carry the ball,” the 6-foot, 199-pound safety said. “For me going from offense to defense, it was kind of bittersweet. But it was something I had to agree with – I really didn’t like play defense. It was kind of one of those things that grew on me.”

At Louisville Central, Spillman was an all-state and all-conference performer in his junior and senior seasons. The talented high school athlete, however, had to make grades to put himself on the radar of most powerhouse collegiate programs. That didn’t happen immediately. Spillman went to a military school to build up his academics and eventually found a spot one semester later playing for the Thundering Herd of Marshall University.

It turned out to be beneficial on many fronts. For one, “I got to play early,” said Spillman who made 33 starts in 46 collegiate contests. “Even though I had a lot of different position coaches and defensive coordinators, they put a lot on me as far as being able to adapt to the playbooks in the NFL.” In Spillman’s mind, Marshall truly prepared him for the NFL. “They demanded the things that professional football requires, so I think that was the biggest advantage I felt I had coming in.”

NEXT LEVEL

Admittedly, he was a little heavy. That’s the only explanation for Spillman running a 4.4-second, 40-yard dash at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine. If you’ve ever watched the 49ers special teams standout split a double-team at the line of scrimmage with ease, or fly through a wedge of kick-off blockers before they’ve even located him, Spillman’s speed is recognizable to everyone. But at his combine day, Spillman thought he could have run better. He laughs about it now, mostly because everyone knows Spillman to be one of the fastest, hardest-hitting special teams players in the league.

It didn’t become so evident right away – Spillman had to work at it. Undrafted in 2009, he signed with the San Diego Chargers because he felt they had the highest success rate of having undrafted players make the 53-man roster. Spillman was right. He made the team in 2009, started one game at Dallas and later posted three special teams tackles in one game against Washington.

The time in San Diego, however, was short lived. Spillman was released five games into the 2010 season and was picked up by the 49ers the very next day he was waived. Spillman was hoping to carve out a career with the Chargers, but ultimately, found what he was looking for with the 49ers. “I’m glad I found that in San Francisco,” he said. “It’s helped me settle down and accomplish the goals I want to get.”

SIGNED THROUGH 2014

It was awkward. The first time Spillman entered the 49ers locker room, he couldn’t help but wonder what was happening with his career. It could’ve been worse, but Spillman points out, the great personalities in San Francisco’s locker room made him all but forget the sudden end to his stay in San Diego. “Throughout that first year (in San Francisco), everything was smooth,” Spillman recalled. “Everybody made me feel like I was part of the team, even though my role was just on special teams. I thought it was easy gelling with the guys when I first got here.”

Shot out of a cannon on seemingly every punt or kick, Spillman recorded 21 special teams tackles in 11 games for the 49ers. The following year, Spillman was re-signed to a one-year contract where he’d have to prove himself all over again to a new head coach and special teams coordinator.

Jim Harbaugh and Brad Seely, the men currently holding those responsibilities for the 49ers, quickly discovered Spillman’s style of play would greatly benefit the club. Spillman, along with a talented group of core special teamers, helped San Francisco achieve one of the best special teams seasons in league history. Besides making the most field goals in NFL history, the coverage units helped All-Pro punter Andy Lee break the league’s net punting average record by posting an even 44.0 yards per punt in 2011. Largely responsible for the unit receiving league-wide praise (the 49ers ranked No. 1 atop the esteemed yearly special teams rankings from Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News), Spillman led the club with 19 special teams tackles.

Unlike the year before when Spillman pretty much beat his teammates to the punch, the speedy safety had to compete with many standout special teamers to get in on tackles. Still, Spillman and his cohorts helped rejuvenate special teams play in San Francisco. And it was as obvious to him, as it was to red and gold clad supporters who got out of their seats every time they heard “Tony Montana” being played through Candlestick Park’s speakers.

“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it where fans take a notice to not just offense and defense, but they started paying attention to special teams. I think that’s a sign we’re all together,” Spillman said. “And to be able to do something fun like that, something that brings a lot of people together, it brought people who really don’t notice the guys out there who cover kicks. It brought a different light to the game and for the most part from what I’ve seen, people were really into those plays and that’s a good thing for us and the fans.”

So with Spillman rejoining the 49ers for three more seasons, will the “Tony Montana Squad” resume its menacing presence in 2012?

“I think we’re going to try and keep it going,” Spillman said. “With the group of guys we have, there’s no reason to why we can’t keep improving at what we’re doing.”

OFFSEASON PLANS

High energy. Productive player. Strong team-first mentality. Developing.

Those were some of the phrases used by general manger Trent Baalke in a press release announcing Spillman’s contract extension.  “We are pleased to come to terms with C.J. for another three years, and look forward to his continued contributions to our organization, both on and off the field,” Baalke was also quoted as saying in the release.

Now that he’s signed on to be a part of the 49ers plans for the next three seasons, Spillman, 25, is eager to pick up where the team left off. He also wants to continue to develop at all aspects of his game, not just covering kicks. “I’m always going to try and put my best foot forward to know what I can do and what I’m capable of doing,” Spillman said. “I take pride that if they had to put me in the game, I know everything that I need to take care of and if one of the starters goes down, there’s not going to be a drop-off. It’s going to be the same.”

An increased defensive role is up in the air for 2012, but Spillman plans on approaching the offseason with the same aggression he uses when chasing down the league’s best return men. Now that he has more stability for himself and his family, Spillman wants to add to his contributions. “I’m looking forward to extending my career here,” he added. “It’s a very good opportunity for me… I’m just trying to get better at every phase of what I can do for this team.”

So while Spillman agreed to his new contract nearly two weeks ago, the 49ers safety didn’t rush to officially sign the paper. Instead, Spillman finished enjoying a family vacation in Hawaii with his two children, Trey and Amaya. Then he came back to complete the contact. “We had a great time in Hawaii,” said Spillman, who shared photos of the trip on his @CJSPILLMAN27 Twitter account. “When I took previous trips, I didn’t take family, so it was a good time to get away and spend time with my kids, let them see different places.”

For the rest of the offseason, Spillman will make the most of his opportunities to spend time with his children, even if it means picking them up from school. He’ll also continue to work out as he prepares for a second season under Harbaugh’s staff.

Spillman’s been busy this offseason alright. If contact negotiations, trips to Hawaii and taking his daughter to gymnastics isn’t enough proof, the sneaker-loving safety hasn’t had time to boost his shoe collection, one of his biggest hobbies of all.

“I haven’t been buying shoes like that,” Spillman said quietly, taking a pause before his next statement. “My lady keeps telling me not to buy as many shoes. She says my closet is full.”