D.J. SWEARINGER could not sit still. The anxiety and anticipation of wearing shoulder pads for the first time in fall practice a couple of Sundays ago was too much for South Carolinas senior free safety.
Practice gets real today, Swearinger said, a wide smile forming over his face and causing creases all the way to the sparkle in his eyes. A lot of thuds today.
Swearinger lives for physical contact on a football field. He thrives on inflicting punishment to opposing quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. It is why he has earned a reputation as one of the fiercest hitters in the Southeastern Conference.
Just ask Tyler Russell, the Mississippi State quarterback who mistakenly opted to wander out of the pocket and a few yards past the line of scrimmage during last seasons game against USC in Starkville, Miss. Swearinger greeted Russell with a jarring hit.
When the quarterback runs, youve got to treat him like a running back, Swearinger said in his understated way. He got down the field a little bit. When I hit him, he came to a complete stop.
Late in the same game, Swearinger intercepted a Russell pass that sealed USCs 14-12 victory. He managed a career-high 12 tackles that afternoon to earn SEC co-defensive player of the week honors.
Swearinger gradually is earning an equal amount of respect as one of the SECs top defensive backs. Phil Steele ranks him as the 11th-best free safety in the country. But he mostly is known for the ferocious nature of his play.
To watch a highlight videotape of Swearinger is to see a wind-up toy that pursues and attacks in a reckless manner.
Lorenzo Ward, USCs defensive coordinator, was a player on defense and special teams at Alabama from 1986-89. From there through 22 years of experience as a coach, Ward has learned to detect the characteristics of a big hitter.
It is totally a mentality that a young man has, Ward said. I used to call myself a hitter. I would much rather hit someone than get an interception. It totally has to be instilled in you to be that kind of guy. I dont think it can be taught.
Swearinger said he gained an attacking mentality by playing offense and defense at Greenwood High. Unlike many who end up on defense because they would rather hit than be hit, Swearinger said he naturally learned to be a punisher whether carrying the ball or making a tackle.
Somehow, someway on defense, I was always a punisher, Swearinger said. Even when I played offense, it was a defensive mentality. I want to punish people. I want to get inside and opponents head, do whatever I can to get every edge on defense.
Once you punish an offensive player, hell think twice. Its a relentless attitude youve got to have to be a hard hitter.
Until recently, Swearinger never had heard of Jack Tatum, who was tough enough to carry two nicknames The Assassin and Jack the Ripper as a safety from 1971 through 1980 primarily with the Oakland Raiders. Tatum was considered among the hardest hitters in NFL history, once saying: I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.
The words fit Swearinger, who patterns his game after recently retired NFL safety Brian Dawkins as well as defensive backs Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens and Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The common thread among the three is a willingness to sacrifice their bodies to initiate contact with an opponent.
Unlike those seasoned professionals, Swearinger still is learning to better control his aggressiveness. Ward said Swearingers inclination almost always is to go for a knockout shot when a simple wrap-up tackle would better serve the defense. Yet Ward said it is a fine line to walk in teaching Swearinger because Ward does not want to take away the players swagger.
You want a receiver to know, if he comes across the middle of the field and he catches a pass, hes going to be tattooed, Ward said. If you can put fear in peoples heart by making big hits, when opportunity presents itself, it makes it better for you as a player.
Part of planting that fear in an opponents head means getting into that players head, according to Swearinger. He admits to being one of USCs leading trash talkers on defense.
On the first play from scrimmage of every game, Swearinger begins talking.
Im going to be out here all night, Swearinger said he tells a receiver. You better watch yourself.
Word is fast spreading around the SEC about Swearingers bone-jarring presence in the USC secondary.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)