No position on the South Carolina defense has given Assistant Head Coach for Defense Ellis Johnson more headaches over the last six months than safety.
Then again, he understood the need to have plenty of aspirin on hand once the decision was made in the spring to shift DeVonte Holloman to spur.
As a result, the safety positions are filled with one experienced veteran (D.J. Swearinger) and a group of players with little or no experience, playing in front of 80,000-plus fans.
Swearinger, who took over at strong (boundary) safety after Holloman was moved to the second level of the USC offense, said on Monday that the depth chart at both safety spots is still under construction.
"We had a good practice today, but we have a lot of work to do. We can never be satisfied," said Swearinger, who remains USC's top kickoff returner as well. "I have to be a leader out there every day and lead by example and get everybody on the same page. If we do that, we'll be all right. This year, we have to disrupt receivers and one way we can do that is by hitting them in the mouth."
Swearinger, a former high school teammate of USC defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, has evolved from being a solid contributor at cornerback as a freshman in 2009 to playing free and strong safety as a sophomore in 2010. Now he's been assigned the position Johnson believes best fits his unique skills.
"Strong safety is where I want to be, so I'm ready for this season to kick off," Swearinger said. "You have to be physical in every aspect of the game. Even on kickoff returns, I have to be physical."
Because of his extensive experience, the coaches know what the hard-hitting Swearinger can do, so the strong safety spot is safe and secure in his capable hands. The free safety spot, though, was the central concern entering preseason camp. Jimmy Legree, a former cornerback, has answered some of those questions by playing well and looks to be the starter come Sept. 3.
"For the most part, Jimmy has made the transition quite well," safeties coach Jeep Hunter said on Monday. "He is a very intelligent player. He was at corner. But he knows what he is doing. He knows how to get lined up. We're pleased where he is at right now. The free safety position is a lot like being the quarterback on offense. You have to get lined up and put yourself in position to make plays and be able to make the checks."
Because of Legree's growth, any talk of moving Holloman back to free safety has dissipated. Holloman will remain at spur.
"We feel very comfortable where we're at right now with Jimmy back there," Hunter said. "We want to leave DeVonte where he is at."
Swearinger added, "Jimmy is a very good free safety. He is long and rangy. He's fast. Having him back there in the deep third will help the defense a lot since I'm more of a physical player. Jimmy and I will communicate back there and we've been on the same page."
Because of the season-ending arm injury to Brison Williams, the three primary backups at the two safety spots are redshirt freshman Sharrod Golightly, redshirt sophomore Corey Addison, and true freshman Kadetrix Marcus, who has already bounced from cornerback to spur to safety in the first three weeks of camp.
"Sharrod and Corey are both coming into their own," Hunter said. "But we all have to remember they're young and they're going to make mistakes. But the one thing they're doing is making those mistakes going full-speed."
Golightly and Addison are pulling double duty, Hunter said, by working at both safety spots, while Marcus is lining up at free safety. Freshman Sheldon Royster will also try to get involved in the mix when he's healthy.
Right now, Golightly is regarded as the No. 2 free safety behind Legree, while Addison is the top backup behind Swearinger at strong safety. Assistant Coach Lorenzo Ward described Golightly on Monday as a "swing guy" that could play either safety position.
"They're both smart enough where they've played both boundary (strong) and free," Hunter said. "We tried not to do that, but they're smart enough to handle it."
Has Marcus finally found a home at safety or will he be moved again?
"Kadetrix is a heavy hitter and he's very intelligent," Hunter said. "With him going from corner to spur and back to safety, he'll be fine. He understands we're all in the same room. So he's been picking up some of the terminology and the way we're doing things. It's just a matter of him getting reps at the safety position and seeing the big picture back there."
At the moment, the sixth safety is Royster, a New Jersey native who has continued to rehab an old shoulder injury throughout preseason camp. When camp started, Royster was thought to be in the mix for playing time, but now it looks like he will redshirt because he has missed so much practice time.
Royster underwent shoulder surgery in March.
"I'm just taking it one step at a time and listening to the coaches trying to see what they feel about me on the field," Royster said. "I feel pretty good. But it's all about what they think and if they believe I'm ready to play. I'm getting everything back to where it's supposed to be."
When he's felt healthy enough to practice, Royster has lined up mostly at free safety. He could make a run at a spot on the depth chart when he's 100 percent.
Now that the coaches appear to have settled on a depth chart at safety, it's nearly time to start preparing for East Carolina. Those formal preparations are expected to begin on Wednesday.
"We've been looking at ECU. They have some good talent at wide receiver," Swearinger said. "Their quarterback is very good. Our defense has to play well. This is a big stage. We have to be ready."
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