COLUMBIA — Expect a rapid-fire East Carolina passing attack to aim right at free safety Jimmy Legree when the Pirates play South Carolina on Saturday night in Charlotte.
Nothing personal. He would do the same thing.
“I guess that seeing a new guy out there I would say, ‘Why not go at him?’ ” Legree said. “But I’m ready.”
A rash of injuries and suspensions make junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore the only full-time starter returning to the South Carolina
secondary. Strong safety D.J. Swearinger and cornerback C.C. Whitlock have seen more action than Legree, a sophomore from Beaufort.
Legree was a three-year starter at Beaufort High School, ran track and picked South Carolina over Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Clemson and Maryland. He redshirted as a Gamecock freshman and last year played in 11 games, all as a cornerback.
The transition to free safety and starting status got a boost with two interceptions in the spring game.
“I’ve just stayed focused,” said Legree, 5-11 and 180 with the long strides of a sprinter. “I try not to think of it as a pressure thing. I just took my time, learned from my teammates and got better every day.”
It’s been a team effort. Gilmore and cornerback Akeem Auguste offered technical tips.
“They walked me through everything and told me what I needed to do to get better,” Legree said. “I appreciated that and took it all under consideration.”
Devin Taylor, an All-SEC defensive end, is a former Beaufort Eagles teammate.
“Devin has been like a mentor to me, even in high school,” Legree said. “Before I got here, he broke it all down and told me how things would be. Once I got here, he showed me all around.”
Every little bit helps. East Carolina was eighth nationally in pass offense in 2010 (318.7 yards per game). Senior quarterback Dominique Davis, a Boston College transfer, threw for 3,967 yards and 37 touchdowns with the Pirates last year.
Most preseason days, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was pleased with Legree’s progress.
“It’s been steady,” Johnson said. “He’s had a few days out there that he hasn’t been at the level that we need him to be to play as a starter in this conference. But, overall, we’ve been very pleased.
“I wish we had somebody behind him that was competing with him.”
Minus freshman Brison Williams (broken arm), the depth chart was so weak the Gamecocks last week gave junior running back Kenny Miles a brief look at safety.
Fortunately, Legree has been inspired by some top-notch pros.
“Before I moved to safety, it was Champ Bailey,” he said. “But now that I have moved to safety it’s more like Brian Dawkins.”
Dawkins, the Denver Broncos veteran, is a probable future Hall of Famer.
But also a Clemson guy.
“I just like his game,” Legree said. “Not where he’s from.”
Auguste, who has missed most of the preseason with a foot injury, has not been ruled out for Saturday’s game against East Carolina.
USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Auguste would only be available in an emergency situation. Auguste practiced late last week, but re-injured his foot during a non-contact drill Monday night.
“It’s a wait and see if we can do anything to get an couple of emergency snaps out of him,” said Johnson.