Football always came easily for running back C.J. Spiller.
Whether it was Pop Warner, high school or college, his physical ability overwhelmed the competition. But the NFL is a different animal. It takes more than skill at that level.
That is the biggest lesson Spiller took from his first season with the Buffalo Bills.
"It was definitely a learning experience," he said. "Coming into the NFL, I really didn't know what to expect. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but it was a tougher adjustment than I thought it would be."
As the ninth overall pick in last spring's draft, Spiller faced the inevitable high expectations. He might have been the most dynamic player in college football, setting numerous records at Clemson.
Like a lot of Bills fans, Spiller thought he would take the NFL by storm. And after a spectacular preseason landed him a starting role in the opener, he seemed on his way.
But the explosiveness that made him a college great was rarely seen during a disappointing rookie campaign in which he rushed for only 283 yards (3.8 per carry) and caught 24 passes for 157 yards and one touchdown in 14 games. His only real success came on special teams, where he averaged 23 yards with a 95-yard touchdown on kickoff returns and 14.6 yards on punt returns.
"I had high expectations for myself coming into the season, but unfortunately it didn't work out," said Spiller, who saw five rookies rush for more yards, including undrafted free agents LeGarrette Blount (1,007) and Chris Ivory (716).
At Clemson, Spiller was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. He scored 51 touchdowns in four seasons, with 21 scores of 50 yards or more.
But with the Bills, it took time for Spiller to realize every play wasn't going to be a 50-yard touchdown. Since he wasn't getting enough touches to establish a rhythm, he tried to make each carry a highlight reel play. He bounced runs outside instead of hitting it up between the tackles, and opposing defenses keyed on that tendency.
"Early on I was pressing so much, trying to hit a home run on every play," Spiller said. "I tried to rely on my ability and my speed instead of letting my teammates do their job, which was blocking. But I can honestly say the last five games I really learned how to become an NFL running back as far as being patient, setting up blocks, taking those 3 to 5 yards and if the big one hits, let it hit. That's the encouraging part that I'm heading into the offseason with."
Spiller had 119 yards in the final five games after returning from a hamstring problem, and in three of them averaged more than 4 yards per carry.
Despite Spiller's disappointing rookie year, the Bills are still excited about his potential as an all-purpose threat capable of making big, game-changing plays.
"I see a multi-use guy, outside, inside running back, slot, giving him the ball whether it's in space handing it to him or whether it's in space throwing it to him," coach Chan Gailey said. "I think he'll continue to get better as an inside runner. Every time he does it he gets better. One of the real issues, and this is something that he'll have to address, is he's got to become a better pass protector if we want to continue to look at him as an every down back. You have to be able to protect in this business."
"C.J. learned a lot this season that is going to help him down the road," added starting running back Fred Jackson. "He's a special talent who is just going to get better and better. I really believe the sky's the limit for him."