COLUMBIA – The Southeastern Conference on Monday suspended South Carolina free safety D.J. Swearinger for this Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. home game against Missouri – a result of what the league called his “flagrant and dangerous” hit in last Saturday’s win over Alabama-Birmingham.

The suspension is a huge loss for the Gamecocks. Swearinger, a senior, is a third-year starter and the Gamecocks have no other proven free safeties. Swearinger rarely comes out of games. His backup, as listed on the depth chart, is senior walk-on Jared Shaw, who was impressive at times as a cornerback during spring practices, but has rarely played.

Entering the preseason, the No. 2 free safety was redshirt freshman Sheldon Royster, a former highly regarded recruit who was the fifth-highest rated prospect in USC’s Class of 2011, according to Rivals.com. But Royster decided to transfer and wound up at Rutgers.

Through three games, Swearinger has 10 tackles (nine solo), an interception, three pass breakups (tied for the team lead) and a fumble recovery that he returned 65 yards for a touchdown against UAB. He is also the only returning starter in the secondary from last season. He and sophomore strong safety Brison Williams are both responsible for getting the back end of the defense lined up before the snap, but Swearinger is the secondary’s most vocal leader.

The play for which he was suspended happened with 5:46 left in the third quarter Saturday, when Jonathan Perry threw a pass over the middle intended for Patrick Hearn, who reached up to try to make the catch.

As the ball hit Hearn’s hands, Swearinger launched himself forward and made facemask-to-facemask contact with Hearn, resulting in a pass breakup. The hit was not late, but the helmet-to-helmet contact resulted in a 15-yard personal foul penalty. Referee Ken Williamson specified it as “contact above the shoulders against a defenseless player.”

USC coach Steve Spurrier was asked Sunday if he thought Swearinger might be suspended for the hit.

“We’ll have to wait and see on that,” Spurrier said. “It was a collision where he turned his head when he hit the guy. There was some helmet-to-helmet (contact) above the shoulder pads, I guess. But that’ll be up to the (SEC) commissioner (Mike Slive) and Steve Shaw, the head of officials. They will make the call. I thought it was a lot similar to the hit Justice Cunningham took at Vanderbilt. That’s sort of a new rule that came in this year. They’re doing everything they can to protect against concussions.”

Now, the Gamecocks must replace one of their best defensive players for a critical SEC East Division game.

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Here is what the SEC said about the hit in its announcement of Swearinger’s suspension ...

The action is in violation of Rule 9-1-4 of the NCAA Football Rule Book, which reads, “No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder.”

By playing rule, a defenseless opponent is defined as “one who because his physical position and focus of concentration is especially vulnerable to injury.” One of the examples in the rule book is a receiver whose focus is on catching a pass.

The NCAA Football Rules Committee and the SEC have made protection of defenseless players a point of emphasis for the 2012 season.

The NCAA Football Rule Book requires a conference to automatically initiate a video review for possible additional sanctions before the next scheduled game (Rule 9-6-2).

This action is taken in accordance with Southeastern Conference Constitution, Article 4.4.2 (d) which states that a student-athlete may be suspended if it is determined that the student-athlete has committed a flagrant or unsportsmanlike act.

“These rules are for the protection of the health and safety of our players on both sides of the ball,” said SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. “It is imperative that our student-athletes understand the importance of this rule. Our motivation in making these decisions is to protect our student-athletes.”