The conversation on South Carolina’s sideline Saturday was a fairly short one.
Defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson asked defensive back Steven Montac if he could play nickel. Keep in mind, Montac worked almost the entire week leading up to the Missouri game at safety.
“Just put me in there,” Montac said.
This isn’t the first time the junior college transfer was asked to bounce between the two spots, but it was almost assuredly the most sudden. He started at safety because D.J. Smith, the team’s most consistent player at the spot, was suspended for a half following a targeting penalty the previous game.
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That, and the particulars of the Tigers offense, left the Gamecocks without much flexibility in the secondary. Late in the first half, starting corner Chris Lammons delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit and was ejected, leaving Montac to plug another hole.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Montac said. “I feel real comfortable playing nickel.”
That meant USC finishing out the half with only two safeties who have been used in rotation.
Montc admitted he had issues with a couple of run fits against Missouri, but at safety he did have a forced fumble that set up South Carolina’s first score.
The way he played and the way he shifted spots at least impressed his coach.
“It’s hard,” Will Muschamp said. “Steven knew going into the game there was a possibility of him having to play some nickel in the game. He did a fantastic job, he really did.”
He added that the staff tries to teach defenses by concept, making it a little easier to move around. The staff also prefers to cross-train players at multiple spots, but much of that happens in spring, and Montac arrived from junior college around the start of fall camp.
They try to sneak in maybe 15 or 18 reps at a different spot, just to get comfortable if and when something happens.
Some of his teammates knew to expect the versatility, especially corner Jamarcus King, who played JUCO ball with Montac in Kansas.
“That’s what coach T-Rob brought him in for,” said King, who lobbied with the coaching staff to bring in Montac. “He could play multiple positions and he didn’t have a problem with it. So I just kept him confident and everything.”
Smith called it just part of football, a reminder that even back to a player’s younger days, he always has to be ready.
Not that Smith thought the switch Montac made was easy.
“I remember they tried to put me at nickel at practice,” Smith said with a sigh. “That wasn’t me. I’ll be honest.”
The depth of the secondary has grown as the season has progressed. USC opened 2016 with some questions. Now, not counting Montac, they’ve got three outside corners, three players who can play nickel (including Jordan Diggs and Antoine Wilder, who are more of run-stoppers), three who can play safety.
Then there’s Montac, who can play all three spots. Coming in late, he’s had to play catch-up, but when that conversation comes on the sidelines he’s always ready to show off his skills.
“The more I practice too, it helps me out,” Montac said. “But I like playing a lot of positions, show how versatile I am.”