Thrust into starting lineup, South Carolina free safety T.J. Gurley benefits from tagging along with D.J. Swearinger
COLUMBIA — Way down in south Georgia, hard by the Florida line, is the small city of Cairo, home to about 9,600 people and an old cane syrup plant that was converted into a cultural center.
The city’s identity is something of a misconception. Its name is pronounced “KAY-ro,” and not like the Egyptian capital. Nor is it affiliated with Karo Syrup, which is made from corn.
It was down there in Cairo that Timothy Gurley, whom everyone calls T.J., conceived his impressions of South Carolina free safety Dayario Jamal Swearinger, whom everyone calls D.J.
Having committed to play for the Gamecocks, Gurley watched online videos of Swearinger’s highlights and noticed his intense and ferocious playing style. Gurley, also a free safety, eventually chatted with Swearinger on Facebook. Swearinger told Gurley that when he arrived in Columbia, they would work out.
Swearinger followed through on the promise this past summer, when he asked true freshmen defensive backs, like Gurley, to join him for weightlifting and film study sessions. Gurley realized then that he had Swearinger figured all wrong.
“I thought he was going to work out and he didn’t talk to you,” Gurley said.
Swearinger’s welcoming approach with Gurley could pay off Saturday, when Gurley starts in his place against Missouri because Swearinger was suspended one game by the Southeastern Conference for a helmet-to-helmet hit last week against Alabama-Birmingham.
Missouri uses a spread offense that relies equally on running and passing, and last year ranked No. 12 nationally in yards per game. The Tigers should benefit Saturday from the return of quarterback James Franklin, who missed last week’s win over Arizona State with a shoulder injury.
He will try to wear out Gurley and USC with a furious succession of plays. Last season, the Tigers averaged 75 plays per game — eight more than USC. In last week’s win over Arizona State, they had 88 offensive snaps.
“If your eyes are in the wrong place, they’ll get you,” Gurley said.
He knows this from watching film in recent days with Swearinger. After Swearinger learned about his suspension, Gurley said Swearinger told him, “We’re going to watch film every day and see what they run. Don’t be scared.”
Fear has not been an issue for Gurley. During a preseason scrimmage, he hit a receiver so hard over the middle that coach Steve Spurrier immediately ran over to him and chastised him for being dangerously aggressive with a teammate. “What’d I do?” Gurley recalled wondering.
“My motor, it doesn’t stop, really,” he said.
The coaches liked Gurley enough that they practiced him as Swearinger’s backup and played him in their dime package, with six defensive backs, during the first three games. Though Gurley was listed only as a second-string corner, he has played almost exclusively safety in games.
“He’s going to be a really good football player here,” said secondary coach Grady Brown. “He’s not tentative. He’ll make mistakes, but everybody else makes mistakes, as well. But he’ll be fine. He’ll make a big play this weekend to get everybody excited.”
Gurley will owe some of his success to Swearinger, a senior who invited several freshmen to work out and watch film with him this summer. Not all came. But Gurley attached himself to Swearinger so frequently that linebacker Shaq Wilson referred to him as “D.J.’s little brother.”
Like any good big brother, Swearinger did things that widened Gurley’s eyes. When they watched film together, Swearinger pointed out things that seemed invisible to Gurley at first glance. “I wouldn’t have even thought of that,” Gurley told himself.
This week, Swearinger has stood on the sideline at practice, giving Gurley pointers whenever he jogs off the field. Gurley expects Swearinger will do the same Saturday.
Judging from Swearinger’s highlight videos that Gurley watched back in Cairo, Gurley never expected Swearinger to be so approachable. Gurley feels fortunate it was just a misconception.
“I wanted to try to come in and play,” Gurley said. “So every time he’d go work out or something, I’d just follow him.”