COLUMBIA — After last season’s second game, South Carolina defensive backs coach Lorenzo Ward decided that Jimmy Legree was no longer an effective option at free safety. Legree struggled with tackling in the previous game, a win over Georgia, but Ward understood Legree was not a natural fit for free safety. He felt far more comfortable at cornerback.

Legree was playing free safety because the coaches wanted DeVonte Holloman at spur outside linebacker. But by the third game, Holloman was back at strong safety, where he started in 2010 and remained for the rest of 2011. D.J. Swearinger also moved from strong safety to free safety to replace Legree, who didn’t start a game for the rest of the season.

Legree, a junior, could get a chance to start again when USC opens the 2012 season next Thursday night at Vanderbilt. Before spring practices, Legree returned to corner, where he played his first two seasons. He was scheduled to back up Akeem Auguste this season, but Auguste is out for at least a month with an injured muscle in his right thigh.

His replacement isn’t set yet, said Grady Brown, who replaced Ward as the secondary coach after Ward was promoted to defensive coordinator. But Legree and redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian appear to be the leading contenders. Legree said he is practicing with the first-team defense, while Christian is with the second string.

“It’s time for me to step up,” said Legree. “I’m excited. I’ve finally got a chance to redeem myself. I’m just ready to step in and make big plays. (Last year) was hard, but I handled it as well as I could. I’m just ready to bounce back now.”

Legree, who is 6 feet, is three inches taller than Auguste and two inches taller than Christian.

“Jimmy’s long,” said Brown. “He has long arms. He has good hips. You can’t teach length. You can’t teach great hips.”

Because of his size, Legree believes his biggest strength is bump-and-run coverage — getting physical with receivers.

This preseason afforded him many chances to display those skills. Auguste was injured in Saturday’s scrimmage, but he had been sidelined for much of August with a groin injury. So Legree and Christian got more practice time with the starters than they normally would have.

That leaves Brown feeling better about replacing Auguste — a senior who missed all of last season with a foot injury after starting in 2009 and 2010 — than he might have if Auguste practiced for the entire preseason, then suddenly gotten hurt so close to the opener.

“Akeem has played a lot of football, so I was not really concerned about him missing a lot of practice time (with the groin injury),” Brown said. “It gave a lot of young guys opportunities to get reps and kind of get prepared for this moment. We’ll miss him, but we’ll be fine. You always hear me talk about developing players, and this is a prime example of why you’ve got to have as many players ready as possible.”

To build depth at corner, a spot that already lost Cadarious Sanders to a transfer this month, Brown switched true freshman T.J. Gurley from safety to corner. He and fellow true freshman corner Chaz Elder are now candidates to play this season if they are ready.

“(Playing in the) perimeter is really a game where if you can run, you can jump, catch the ball and know how to cover, you can go out there and play,” Brown said. “Experience is great. I’m not downplaying that. But if you’re ready to play, you go out and get it done.”

Auguste will be re-evaluated in four to five weeks, so whoever replaces him should get at least the first three games to prove himself — Vanderbilt, East Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham. Despite others jockeying to replace Auguste, Brown doesn’t envision this being a lost season for him.

“I would say we want him back as soon as he can get 100 percent,” Brown said. “With an injury like that, you don’t want to come back too early and mess around and re-aggravate it. I expect him at some point to still make a big play to help this team win a championship.”