COLUMBIA — Near the end of South Carolina’s practice Tuesday morning, linebacker Damario Jeffery tangled with center T.J. Johnson after a play on which Johnson pulled off the line to block Jeffery.
Jeffery and Johnson shoved and slapped each other for a few moments before teammates separated them. It was a typical skirmish for the fifth day of preseason practice, but if nothing else, it showed how excited Jeffery feels about this season — his last at USC and first as a starter.
“I’ve been waiting to get here,” Jeffery said.
It wasn’t supposed to take this long. Jeffery went to high school in Columbia and was a well-regarded recruit, ranked No. 87 overall in the Class of 2009 by Rivals.com. But Jeffery struggled to learn USC’s defense. Antonio Allen passed him at the spur outside linebacker spot and held the starting job for the next three years.
Jeffery played in 37 games during that time, but started just four, all when Allen was hurt. That included one last season, a loss at Arkansas in which Jeffery struggled with pass coverage.
With DeVonte Holloman sliding from strong safety to spur to replace Allen this season, Jeffery finally got his wish and was moved to inside linebacker. USC rotated four players at the two inside spots last season, and though three returned, Jeffery entered the preseason as the No. 1 Will linebacker, which means he lines up on the weak side of the defense. The spur is on the strong side. The other inside linebacker, the Mike, lines up in the middle.
USC likely will again rotate its inside linebackers, as Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens and Quin Smith are all seniors who started last season. With backup spur Sharrod Golightly suspended for the first three games, Jeffery has also practiced as Holloman’s understudy.
Though Jeffery’s game experience is only at spur, a linebacker/safety hybrid position, he is impressing linebackers coach Kirk Botkin with his sharpness in learning both the Will and Mike spots while also working at spur. Physically, he certainly looks the part of an inside linebacker, as he is listed at 6-4 and 233 pounds.
“If you look at him, he’s the biggest joker out there,” Botkin said. “Reggie Bowens might weigh a little bit more (254), but when you look at the linebackers, (Jeffery) is probably the first one that catches your eye. He’s very football intelligent, and that’s what gives him the versatility he has.”
Jeffery sometimes struggled at spur, with playing in the open field against faster players. He asked the coaches during his sophomore season to move him to inside linebacker, but too many players were already there. Now that he’s inside, he feels like that position best suits him, even though he has never played there in a game.
Had Jeffery always played inside, he said, “my confidence would have been a lot higher, because the opponents I (would’ve been) facing inside, like running backs, they wouldn’t be slot receivers and guys who run 4.4 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) and always taking off down the field.”
McEvoy to transfer
Redshirt freshman reserve quarterback Tanner McEvoy, who was arrested last month, will transfer.He entered preseason practices fourth on the depth chart, behind junior Connor Shaw, sophomore Dylan Thompson and senior Seth Strickland, and ahead of only junior Andrew Clifford.
McEvoy, a 6-6, 209-pounder from Hillsdale, N.J., was arrested July 29 in North Carolina and charged with speeding and driving after consuming alcohol while under 21. But the arrest did not result in him being suspended for any practices or games.
McEvoy was at Friday’s first practice, after which coach Steve Spurrier said he would not be suspended.
Still, Spurrier has made it clear early in preseason practices that Thompson had emerged as USC’s second-best quarterback, behind Shaw, who enters his first full season as the starter after taking over midway through 2011.