It’s no secret that hard-charging safety D.J. Swearinger played a big role in the success of South Carolina’s top-notch defenses the past couple of seasons.
But secondary coach Grady Brown said the Gamecocks have a talented group of returning defensive backs.
“If we can continue on this track that we’re on, we have a chance to be a pretty good group,” Brown said.
Veterans Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree return at cornerback. They’re joined by junior Brison Williams at free safety, and junior Kadetrix Marcus and sophomore T.J. Gurley at strong safety.
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Brown said someone will step forward to plug the gap left by the vocal Swearinger, whose 79 tackles ranked second on the team this past season.
“Would I like to have a leader? Absolutely,” Brown said. “Having a leader is like having a big brother or having a big sister. Things sounded a little different coming from them than it did from the parents in terms of reinforcing the right things to do. By the same token, you can’t appoint a leader. It just happens naturally.”
Williams, who played strong safety last season, had 52 tackles and two interceptions , Legree had 44 tackles and three interceptions, and Hampton had 40 tackles and one interception. Both Legree and Hampton had six pass breakups, second behind Swearinger’s seven.
“We feel good about the possibilities and having the chance to be good. At corner last year, we played well more times than not,” Brown said. “In just the development and understanding the defense — whether it be recognizing down and distance or receiver alignments and formations — the guys did a good job of that game by game as the season went on.”
Brown expects Marcus, who primarily played on special teams last season, and Gurley, an All-SEC freshman who suffered a knee injury that ended his season against Florida, to step up and play like veterans when camp opens Friday.
Moving Williams to free safety and playing Marcus and Gurley at strong safety isn’t a huge deal, as Brown noted that “they’re pretty much interchangeable in this defense at any given point, depending upon the formation. We want to have everybody in the best possible position as it relates to their abilities.”
He said Gurley can make a real impact if the knee is fully recovered.
“He did some good things last year and was developing well from a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint. It will be interesting to see how healthy he is,” Brown said.
Depth will be provided by redshirt freshmen Chris Moody, Chaz Elder and Kyle Fleetwood at the safety spots.
“All of those guys are good players with good ability. It’s just going to be about how bad they want to play,” Brown said. “We need at least four players ready to play, and whoever ends up being that fourth player depends on how fast those guys want to play.”
Redshirt freshman Rico McWilliams, JC transfer Ronnie Martin and sophomore Ahmad Christian will supply the depth at cornerback. Brown likes Martin’s readiness to contribute as an experienced player and Christian’s confident manner, but he is excited about the potential of McWilliams, who missed last season after a knee injury in fall camp.
“I’m excited to see what Rico will be able to do in training camp. If he were healthy last year, he would have played a lot,” Brown said. “If he is healthy, I believe he can be that third or fourth guy to provide us with depth.”
Brown is ready to see what the secondary can do while teaming up with an excellent defensive front to limit SEC passing attacks, as they did last season in holding teams to 194.8 passing yards per game.
“The secondary and D-line really work hand-in-hand,” Brown said. “Whenever we were able to get a body on a body in coverage and be close to the receiver, it made the quarterback have some type of hesitation and not throw it on time. When we did that, the D-line was in the quarterback’s face and either made a sack or forced a bad throw.”
DEFENSIVE BACKS OUTLOOK
Junior Victor Hampton and senior Jimmy Legree return at cornerback. Junior Brison Williams returns but will move from strong safety to free safety. Junior Kadetrix Marcus and sophomore T.J. Gurley are back to battle at strong safety. Depth will be provided by redshirt freshman Rico McWilliams, JC transfer Ronnie Martin and sophomore Ahmad Christian at cornerback and by redshirt freshmen Chris Moody, Chaz Elder and Kyle Fleetwood at safety.
The Gamecocks will miss the leadership of hard-hitting free safety D.J. Swearinger, the team’s second-leading tackler who now plays for the Houston Texans. Cornerback Akeem Auguste also has departed.
Marcus and Gurley will go at it hard to determine the other starter at safety besides Williams.
Can the secondary have the same fierce attitude that Swearinger brought the past few seasons? Coach Grady Brown believes the talent is in place for the defensive backfield not to miss a beat.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Hampton could have a breakout season. The Everyday Attitude Award winner the past two spring practices, the brash junior is a physical player and a top cover corner. He’s also listed as the top punt returner entering the season.