Wide receiver wants to make headlines on the field this year

BY DARRYL SLATER

dslater@postandcourier.com

COLUMBIA — South Carolina wide receiver Damiere Byrd probably never envisioned a freshman season in which he missed four times as many games, because of an NCAA eligibility issue, as passes he caught. But that’s exactly what happened in 2011, which was more eventful for Byrd off the field than on it.

He was suspended by the NCAA for the first four games and required to repay $2,700 in impermissible benefits he and his family received from a USC booster during his recruitment. When the suspension ended, Byrd started the next game, against Auburn, but finished the season with one catch for 16 yards, 10 runs for 73 yards and a kickoff return for 24 yards.

Byrd’s NCAA violations stemmed from his involvement with the Delaware-based Student Athlete Mentoring Foundation, which was run by two USC graduates, one of whom the NCAA considered a booster because he had football season tickets. Byrd’s father, Adrian, was vice president of the foundation.

Byrd seemed to have the potential to contribute as a freshman. He was ranked as the nation’s No. 19 receiver in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com. His overall ranking of No. 186 made him the Gamecocks’ fourth-highest rated recruit in last year’s freshman class.

He has a small physique, 5-9 and 168 pounds, but possesses prodigious speed. He is a track and field sprinter, and he said he has run the 100 meters in 10.33 seconds and the 200 in 21.12. He competed for USC’s indoor track team this past winter and placed sixth at the Southeastern Conference championships in the 60 meters.

Despite all that, his freshman season amounted to 12 touches of the ball, and that one catch.

“It was kind of difficult,” he said. “Nobody really ever has a one-catch year coming into a college. It was just a learning experience. I was still out there. I was still learning a lot of stuff even though I only had that one catch. I’m fine with it.

“A lot of (the reason for limited involvement in the passing game) I think was just that the opportunities weren’t there when I was out there. But also me just learning what the game is like, how to get open, what kind of routes I should be running, and reading the defense.”

To be fair, USC threw just 36 percent of the time last season, and 26 percent of the Gamecocks’ total catches were by Alshon Jeffery. Now that Jeffery is in the NFL and Ace Sanders is USC’s only game-tested returning receiver, Byrd has an opportunity to contribute more.

He was named the most improved receiver of spring practices, and is currently listed behind Bruce Ellington at the “Z” inside/slot receiver spot. Ellington is also a smaller receiver, 5-9 and 197 pounds, but receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. isn’t fretting about having guys of that size play a receiver position that requires blocking linebackers.

“Damiere might not be our best blocker, but he’s doing really good in there,” Spurrier Jr. said. “He gets open. He’s a little tougher than you think he is. One of the true benefits he has is that people have a hard time getting their hands on him.”

Said Byrd: “I still get into some situations where I wish I was a little bigger. I’m still learning and I’m still trying to overcome the size deficit. Most of the time, I’m probably not going to win that battle (blocking a linebacker), but I just go in there and just try to hit him and hopefully I’ll hold him up for a second so that our running backs can go by.”

Getting open will obviously be Byrd’s biggest contribution. He didn’t need to run precise routes in high school. Cornerbacks, wary of his speed, rarely played press coverage against him. Byrd knew last summer that he would have to improve his route-running, but he still processed his routes too slowly last season, counting off his steps, rather than instinctively knowing where was supposed to be.

“It definitely slows you down,” he said. “You’re thinking about the route that you need to run, how deep you have to go, and then you’re trying to look at the safeties and the corners.”

He spent this summer honing his route running in seven-on-seven workouts with quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. He focused on committing his steps to memory, so he wouldn’t have to count and could play at his top speed — a dangerous prospect for opponents.

“I feel like I progressed a lot,” he said. “I know exactly how to get open now, what I need to do in different coverages.”