C.J. Spillman San Francisco 49ers

The man in the photo above isn’t exactly anonymous. Is he an NFL star? No. But he was the subject of a Sports Illustrated story about special teams gunners in August, and he gets the attention of opposing special teams coaches.

He always has my attention. Wait, no … that’s not exactly true. While I’d love to be able to profess my love and admiration for all parts of the game, kickoffs and punts are usually occurrences that are soon forgotten — save for the rare times when someone takes one to the house. Even the long returns that put the receiving team deep in enemy territory are usually glossed over in our postgame recaps unless they took place during the end of a game, before a game-winning drive.

Spillman doesn’t have gaudy statistics — five solo tackles, three assists. Only one of those tackles (an assist) took place as a safety, Spillman’s original (and preferred) position, as he explained in August.

“I see myself as more than just a special-teams player,” Spillman said. “I see myself as a defensive player. I’m just trying to get myself in position so that when an opportunity comes along – like it is now — I just take advantage of it. Grab the bull by the horns, man.”

But the 49ers drafted a safety in the first round in Eric Reid who has turned out to be really good, and the other safety, Donte Whitner, has the respect of his defensive coordinator and currently has the highest overall score on Pro Football Focus of any individual defender on the team.

“Special teams ace” is the best label Spillman can earn these days, but that’s no slight on him whatsoever. Special teams is important, challenging and extremely dangerous. And Spillman is a rare special teams player who rarely touches the ball but still gets noticed.

I saw the following play — the opening kickoff against the Texans — from the press box as it developed. For some reason I wasn’t in follow-the-ball mode, I was in follow-the-C.J. mode, and the all-22 film is shot from the same vantage point as the one I had. I don’t know how to make GIFs, so you’re going to have to be satisfied with screenshots and arrows. (Not that anyone ever complains as long as slideshows aren’t involved.)

C.J. Spillman 1

As usual, Spillman is the first 49er to reach the 20-yard-line.

C.J. Spillman kickoff coverage

Contact is made.

C.J. Spillman

Spillman is facing away from the ball, but starts spinning to his left.

C.J. Spillman

He immediately spots returner Keshawn Martin taking the ball out of the end zone.

C.J. Spillman

But another blocker approaches …

C.J. Spillman coverage vs Texans

Look out, C.J.!

C.J. Spillman coverage

Never mind.

C.J. Spillman

Spillman is, once again, further downfield than anyone else.

C.J. Spillman

Right about now is when Martin realizes he should’ve cut outside all along.

C.J. Spillman

Actually, Martin should’ve stayed in the end zone.

C.J. Spillman

Down at Houston’s 12-yard-line. Three plays later, pick-6 for Tramaine Brock.

The 49ers’ coverage teams are much better this season, particularly on kickoffs — they’re 7th in the NFL in average return allowed; last year they were 31st. Phil Dawson deserves some credit, because instead of trying to kick the ball as far as possible regardless of trajectory (like David Akers), Dawson’s kicks have above average hangtime and allow the coverage team plenty of time to get downfield. But the first guy there is usually Spillman, who has made three solo tackles during kickoffs this season.

1. Against Green Bay, he tackled Jeremy Ross at the 9-yard-line when the 49ers held a 31-28 lead in the fourth quarter. After the Packers went three-and-out, the 49ers’ ensuing drive led to a field goal (the final score: 34-28).

2. The kickoff described in full detail above, which started the Texans at their own 12.

3. A later kickoff in the same game where Spillman stopped Martin at Houston’s 9-yard-line.

The NFL is thinking about eliminating kickoffs, which would make his desire to become a starting safety that much stronger. But for now, Spillman’s ability to pin opponents close to their own goal-line isn’t just noticeable, it’s something that has helped the 49ers win games.