C.J. Spiller 2.0? Clemson commit Tavien Feaster enjoys the comparsion, but he wants to make his own name
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Tavien Feaster swivels in his seat. "It's right there," he says, pointing across the room. When did Feaster, a senior running back at Spartanburg High, know he had a future in football? The moment is framed in his coach's office, a photograph of the scoreboard at nearby Union County (S.C.) High. The yellow bulbs spell out a result unfavorable to the home team: Spartanburg 51, Union County 21.
The photo isn't hanging for Feaster's benefit. That game took place on Aug. 30, 2013, and Chris Miller, now the Vikings third-year head coach, preserved the memory to celebrate his first win. But Feaster sees the picture in a different light. He sees it as a window into a game in which he scored three touchdowns as a sophomore first-year starter. Three days after the picture was taken, Clemson became the first school to offer him a scholarship.
Two and a half years after beating Union County, Feaster rests in a cushioned chair in Miller's office. It is one week before National Signing Day, when Feaster will sign his Letter of Intent and finalize his pledge to the Tigers, to whom he has been committed for almost a full year. He is a five-star talent, the No. 2 tailback in the country and the No. 27 overall player in the class on 2016, according to Scout.com. He boasts that he can run the 40 in 4.34 seconds, quicker than any of the 26 players listed ahead of him.
Feaster is the type of recruit whom coaches dream about landing: He has size (6 feet, 195 pounds), speed and rare pass-catching ability for a high school back. In Clemson circles, however, he is beloved for another reason. In 2006 the school signed a Florida prospect who would go on to become a first-team All-America, amass more than 7,500 career all-purpose yards and, eventually, be selected as a first-round NFL draft pick by the Buffalo Bills. That guy was C.J. Spiller. Feaster is seen as the second coming.
"I hear that a lot: Spiller 2.0," Feaster says. "It's not even that I want to be like C.J., man. I want to be Tavien Feaster. I want to make my own name."
One could argue Feaster started to make a name for himself in first grade. His elementary school teacher recruited him to run the 50-yard dash at field day, and Feaster's mother, Latasha McCree Mcelrath, didn't know her son had wheels. That changed when he burst through the front door clutching a handful of ribbons. "His first-grade teacher calls and says, 'Tavien is really fast,'" Mcelrath says.
His reputation grew as he made his way through middle school. Tavien's older sister, Tiffany McCree, was a senior on the Spartanburg track and field team when she told the Vikings longtime coach, Glover Smiley, about her supersonic younger brother. One day Feaster tagged along with his mom to pick up Tiffany from practice. Smiley introduced himself and teased Tavien with a challenge: You're not that fast. "He said, I'll come out and show you,'" Smiley recalls. In eighth grade Feaster earned all-county, all-region and all-state honors as a member of Spartanburg's 4-x-400 meter relay. He went on to become the regional champ in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter events as a freshman.
Smiley has more than two decades under his belt as Spartanburg's track coach, and in Feaster he saw a runner who could become one of the best in state history. Smiley even coached Stephen Davis, who starred in track and football for the Vikings in the early 1990s. Davis set a state record in the 100-meter dash in 1991, went to Auburn as a running back in '92 and spent 11 seasons in the NFL. "I kept saying he had a special talent," Smiley says of Feaster. "If he kept working and kept his head on straight, he could be just as good, or better, than Stephen Davis."
While Feaster shined on the track, his potential simultaneously skyrocketed on the football field. He first became enamored with the sport as a 7-year-old watching his older brother, Trey McCree, play Pop Warner. Mcelrath hesitated to let her younger son suit up, but Feaster was hooked after watching from the sidelines. Feaster joined a league a year later and continued on through middle school.
By the time Miller arrived as Spartanburg's new coach in 2012, his staff was already familiar with Feaster's talent. But Miller truly recognized the rising sophomore's speed during off-season conditioning. Spartanburg coaches run an exercise called "Chaos," which requires players to shuffle forward, backward and then laterally as quickly as they can. Most guys needed time to adjust to the drill. Not Feaster.
That agility is what separates Feaster from other high school players. Miller coached former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore at Byrnes (S.C.) High, his previous coaching job. Lattimore electrified the SEC with 1,197 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman in 2010 before his career was limited due to multiple injuries. Feaster is quicker than Lattimore was. "I've seen him in so many situations where a guy in his position would be dead to rights," Miller says. "But we can't touch him, much less tackle him." Once, during practice, Miller watched a cornerback, a linebacker and a safety effectively surround a ball-carrying Feaster. But the running back escaped unscathed, and his dumbfounded coach could only drop his jaw.
As a senior last season Feaster racked up 1,971 all-purpose yards with 21 touchdowns and helped his team finish 12–2 despite missing one state playoff game with a knee injury. He was named South Carolina's Mr. Football in December, becoming the first Clemson commit to win the award since Roscoe Crosby in 2000. Feaster is also the first Spartanburg player to earn the nod since—wait for it—Stephen Davis in 1992.
Still, Feaster's name is most commonly associated with Spiller, a running back who likewise lined up as a receiver and snagged passes out of the backfield. Spiller ran track at Clemson, earning All-America honors in three of his four years, and the Tigers have offered the same opportunity to Feaster. Add everything up, and it's easy to see why Tigers fans have such high hopes for Spiller 2.0. "I can catch the ball, I can run the ball, I'm fast, I can break it for 80 [yards]," Feaster says. "Spiller did those exact same things. I know there are going to be comparisons."
Feaster strongly considered offers from Auburn and Tennessee, and he took official visits to both over the course of his recruitment. But the backfield depth in Auburn and Knoxville shifted his focus to Clemson, the program that targeted him well before anyone else. Feaster formed a bond with co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott and committed to the Tigers on signing day 2015. And while Feaster's courtship didn't end there—he visited Tennessee last summer, and South Carolina made a late push in December—he describes his mindset as "100% Clemson."
Two seasons ago, the Tigers inked blue-chip quarterback recruit, Deshaun Watson, who went on to become a Heisman Trophy finalist and led the program to the national championship game as a true sophomore in 2015. Feaster feels he can make a similar impact as a young player, even with rising junior tailback Wayne Gallman returning to campus. Watson, Gallman and rising senior tight end Jordan Leggett are the primary pieces of Clemson's offense coming back in '16. Even though the Tigers' defense must replace several big names from last season, the program is expected to return to College Football Playoff contention.
Feaster expects to be a part of that push when he arrives at Clemson this summer. And the comparisons to a Tigers legend have Feaster already dreaming of the prospects who could one day follow in his footsteps.
"I want people in that town to say Feaster 2.0 to the next guy up," he says.