D.J. Smith wanted to clarify.
He is an elder statesman of the South Carolina football team’s secondary, a group with only two seniors who have played four years in Columbia. He’s at a position, safety, traditionally relied upon to coordinate things on the defense’s back end.
But he didn’t necessarily see himself as a leader of the group.
“I’d say a veteran,” Smith said, “just an older player that knew the defense last year, and coming back to help the younger players.”
Smith’s journey at USC has been a winding one. Now he’s a returning starter in his senior season coming off a year in which he was a constant presence on a unit that retooled on an almost weekly basis.
He wasn’t the most consistent player even through last season (he said it’s something he’s always working on), but it was a big leap from years 1 and 2. He was a four-star prospect out of high school, but things were rocky early on.
“My first year, I didn’t play as much as I should have played because I wasn’t as smart as some of the older players,” Smith said. “But I still had some of the ability to do what they did. But they had the smarts over me.”
Smith saw action in 12 games as a freshman, but couldn’t get a foothold in a porous Gamecocks secondary. His lone start saw Kentucky average 6.8 yards a play and score 45 points in an upset, as Smith was ejected for targeting.
In 2015, Smith played behind Jordan Diggs. For one game against Tennessee, Smith was installed as a starter, only to see the Vols march for touchdowns on their first two drives and Diggs was back in for most of the rest of the game.
Under a new staff, Smith became a starter, the team’s leading tackler (80, plus an interception and two fumble recoveries) and part of a pass defense that at least excelled at big-play prevention.
His group is now aiming to tighten things up more than last year, controlling opposing running games and screen passes. Smith’s work will factor in, as will his work helping bring along a large group of newcomers into the college game.
He might not feel he’s the leader, but he’s still got some wisdom to pass along.
“If I had to give advice to somebody coming out of high school or any young player in college, I would just tell them get in their playbook,” Smith said. “They have the ability if they’re already here.”