When people think back to the 1997 Syracuse University football season, chances are the first thing that comes to mind is Kevin Johnson’s 87 yard return for a touchdown on the very first play of the season, which sparked a 34-0 domination of Wisconsin. After that, people may remember the three straight losses that followed that game, or the way the team turned it around and won eight straight on the shoulders of Donovan McNabb.
But Kevin Johnson’s kick return was far from the only big special teams play of the year, and McNabb wasn’t the only star making plays to turn the season around. That was also the season that the college football world was introduced to Quinton Spotwood, a dynamic, 5-foot-11 receiver from New Jersey who, by the way, just happened to put together the greatest single season on special teams of any Orangeman, ever.
Special teams were still a focal point for the Orange back in those days, and it’s hard to imagine anyone overshadowing Johnson that year. Johnson averaged a staggering 36.7 yards per return on kickoffs, and brought one more to the house. But that’s nothing compared to Spotwood. The sophomore averaged a sensational 14.9 yards per punt return, with four touchdowns. Add to that Spotwood’s equally impressive receiving numbers – 41 catches, 797 yards, eight touchdowns – and you’re talking about one of the best individual seasons by a Syracuse wideout in program history.
For many, this signified the coming of another Marvin Harrison. Spotwood was even the same size, and wore Harrison’s legendary number 8 jersey. With McNabb throwing him the ball for one more season, Spotwood looked poised to break out as an All-American in 1998. Hell, he was named to the 1998 Playboy Preseason All-America Team, back when that was a thing people actually cared about.
Instead, he fell almost entirely off the map.
Johnson once again put up truly special numbers during his senior season, catching 60 balls for 894 yards and nine touchdowns. But Spotwood wasn’t second on the team in catches, or even third. The junior made just 15 catches in five games before going down with a knee injury in a blowout win over Cincinnati, and had been averaging a dismal 3.8 yards per return on punts. Most people look back and think that it was the injury that kept his numbers so low that year, and while it certainly didn’t help, few people recall that he was struggling mightily to duplicate his success from his sophomore campaign.
Spotwood didn’t find the endzone either through the air or on punt returns as a junior. He came back from his injury and paired with the quarterback tandem of Troy Nunes and Madei Williams as a senior, but he still wasn’t the same player he’d been that magical sophomore season. Anyone who watched him play that year could tell he was tentative, nervous about his knee giving way again. Gone was the explosiveness that allowed him to make big play after big play, instead turning into more of a possession receiver in a game breaker’s body.
During his first two seasons, Spotwood averaged 19.2 and 19.4 yards per catch, respectively. In his injury shortened junior season, that number was down to 10, and as a senior, he averaged just 11.9 yards per catch. Now, obviously some of that falls on the shoulders of his quarterbacks, neither of whom could throw the ball like Donovan McNabb. The offense as a whole wasn’t as explosive in 1999 – which happened to be my freshman year at Syracuse, by the way – but even so, Spotwood just appeared to be a different player.
The big plays down the field that season went almost exclusively to the diminutive Pat Woodcock, and even Malik Campbell (who was never confused to be with a speedster) averaged 16.2 yards per reception. Spotwood led the team with 32 catches, and finished second with 380 yards, but only found the endzone three times. He bounced back to a degree on punt returns, bumping his average back up to 9.9 yards per return, but once again failed to make any difference making plays in that aspect of the game.
Despite his last two disappointing seasons, Spotwood got his shot in the NFL, first with the Miami Dolphins and later with the New York Giants. Spotwood was waived by the Dolphins before ever actually getting to suit up, after the Fins had signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent. He never got a chance to make an impact with the Giants, either, finishing his NFL career without a catch to his name, eventually moving on to play a season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. Even playing north of the border in the pass friendly CFL, Spotwood made just three receptions for 44 yards that year, appearing in only two games.
It’s hard to figure out what exactly happened to Spotwood that caused such a sharp drop off from his sophomore to junior campaign. Maybe he was dancing around too much on special teams, trying to make a big play when a simple one would have worked. Maybe the added attention he started to receive opposite Kevin Johnson was too much pressure for him to handle.
During his sophomore season, he looked poised to match the career of Marvin Harrison. The same size, the same explosive playmaking, the same great hands. And now, instead of looking back at a Hall of Fame career, we can only look back and imagine what might have been.