It was just one play in one May practice, but C.J. Spillman certainly looked the part.
Lined up in man-to-man coverage against fellow Marshall alum Randy Moss, Spillman shadowed the veteran wideout closely before breaking on an out route and swatting the ball down to the ground. It was just the type of display of athleticism that helped earn Spillman a vote of confidence from the 49ers, as he signed a three-year extension with the club this offseason.
While he may have unprecedented security with his new contract, Spillman isn't resting on his laurels. After establishing himself as a key special teams player on last year's touted unit, Spillman has been able to focus on playing defense this offseason.
"I'm open to playing any and everything; whatever's going to get me on the field," Spillman said. "Versatility is the key in this business, so the more you can do the longer you'll stay."
Defensively, Spillman saw most of his game action in goal line packages last year, but he took plenty of practice reps at cornerback as well. Spillman has been getting a healthy share work with the first-team defense at safety throughout OTAs and said he feels like his coverage skills are a solid complement to his ability to be a heavy hitter.
"I feel that if they sit me up there and line me up against anybody that I can cover anybody," Spillman said.
The confident 26-year-old has also made a good impression on his coaches this offseason.
"We've had time to have a full spring with him," defensive backs coach Ed Donatell said. "He's more mature as a professional, he's done a great job with our special teams and he's looking to increase his role. Things are great for him."
As part of the Tony Montana Squad and other coverage units in 2011, Spillman led the 49ers and tied for fourth in the NFL with 19 special teams tackles. He also had some show-stopping plays to take note of, including the goal-line stop he had in Baltimore against Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, the time he stopped Andy Lee's punt near the goal line in Arizona and his game-ending tackle in the playoff victory over New Orleans.
Combined with his outgoing personality in the locker room, one can see why the 49ers valued Spillman so much.
"I think the coaches sat there and saw – in what little I played – the potential that I have and what I'm capable of doing," Spillman said. "For them to sit there and put a lot of confidence in me, that shows me that when it's time to go, I got to make sure I'm ready to go."
Spillman and the 49ers secondary will certainly be tested this year, as quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford are all on the schedule.
For Donatell, the reveal of the 2012 schedule gave him something of a shock.
"It's like having a baby," Donatell said. "You need about six-to-nine months to get ready to where you can say, 'Yeah, we can take this on.' Because the first day is kind of tough when you see them all kind of sitting there in a line. But by the time August rolls around, I'll be able to say, 'OK, we have a plan for success. We can get this done.'"
But the San Francisco defense has already ramped up the competition this offseason. Adding high-caliber players like Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins to an already talented pass-catching group has been a welcome challenge for the 49ers defense.
"The group of guys we've got – we're all about competing," Spillman said. "We always expect whoever's facing us to bring their 'A' game because we always bring ours."
Donatell said he's been pleased with the progress of the secondary as a whole, specifically citing the strong veteran influences of Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner. Other contributors like Spillman, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox have also developed well this offseason, according to Donatell.
But the veteran NFL coach is most pleased with the team's ability to retain all 11 defensive starters from last year and to see them grow under the second year with coordinator Vic Fangio.
"To be back together, hearing all the same things and having Vic Fangio in front of the same guys again – that's powerful to me and all of our coaching staff," Donatell said. "That's neat. Continuity will help us and we've got some fine players."