COLUMBIA — Free safety D.J. Swearinger and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins played against each other the past three years in the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry. They crossed paths early in last year’s game, when Swearinger trash talked Hopkins after Swearinger made his first tackle.
“Come on, man, with the soft block,” Swearinger recalled telling Hopkins. “You’ll get your running back killed.”
That they are now teammates with the Houston Texans is not interesting just because they used to play for the Gamecocks and Tigers, though that will make their Thanksgiving week fun.
It is far more compelling because they will learn from two of the NFL’s best players. While Hopkins sits in position meetings with Andre Johnson, Swearinger will shadow free safety Ed Reed, a future Hall of Famer who signed with the Texans in the offseason after 11 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.
Johnson and Reed were teammates at Miami and played on the 2001 national championship team, one of the most talented groups in college football history. Reed was drafted in 2002, Johnson 2003. While they enjoy their reunion this year in Houston, they will have two rookies at their sides, eager to pick their brains.
Hopkins was picked in Thursday’s first round, 27th overall. Swearinger went 30 picks later, with the second round’s 25th selection Friday.
Swearinger was USC’s first pick this year, and the second of three Palmetto State players taken in this draft by the Texans, who are owned by Bob McNair, a 1958 USC graduate. Hopkins is from Central. Swearinger played at Greenwood High with defensive end Sam Montgomery, whom the Texans picked out of LSU with the third round’s 33rd pick.
“I watched Ed Reed before every game,” Swearinger said on a teleconference with Houston reporters. “Him and Sean Taylor both. That’s definitely a guy that I’m looking forward to learning from him and feeding off him. Back in high school I started watching (Reed). Sean Taylor and Ed Reed are some of my idols that I looked up to when I was in high school. I want to just keep it going in the NFL.”
Swearinger was the fifth safety taken, behind Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro (15th to New Orleans), LSU’s Eric Reid (18th to San Francisco), Florida’s Matt Elam (32nd to Baltimore) and Florida International’s Johnathan Cyprien (33rd, first in the second round, to Jacksonville). Last year’s 57th pick, quarterback Brock Osweiler, received a four-year contract from the Broncos worth about $3.1 million, including a $997,584, according to The Denver Post.
Reed is considered perhaps the greatest safety in NFL history, but will turn 35 in September. The Texans’ starting strong safety is Danieal Manning, who turns 31 in August. The Texans list Shiloh Keo, their fifth-round pick in 2011, as their backup free safety. So Swearinger has a chance to be Reed’s understudy next season, on a team that is 12-4 and 10-6 the past two seasons, and is trying to break through after losing in the divisional playoff round both years.
Houston’s starting secondary also includes cornerback Johnathan Joseph, a Rock Hill native and first-round pick from South Carolina in 2006. The Texans play a dime package, with six defensive backs, about 50-60 percent of the time, which means Swearinger could see significant action next season. The Texans’ third safety last year, Quintin Demps, struggled at times and is no longer on the team, leaving a vacancy that Swearinger will contend to fill.
When Swearinger played for the Gamecocks, he earned a reputation as a hard hitter and intense player. In the 2012 regular season finale at Clemson, he laid a clean hit on running back Andre Ellington, then flexed over him, shouted a curse word at him and was flagged for a personal foul. Earlier last season, Swearinger was suspended one game for a helmet-to-helmet hit — a play that college and NFL officials now monitor much more closely.
“He just knocks guys out,” said analyst Todd McShay, on ESPN’s draft broadcast. “He’s going to have to be careful at the next level with the way he hits.”
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips enjoys Swearinger’s physicality.
“It’s pretty easy to watch him for coaches,” Phillips said on a teleconference. “It’s pretty easy to watch a guy who strikes like he does and moves like he does and is athletic as he is, but as physical as he is, too. That always adds to your team.”
Phillips said Swearinger could fill the role that Glover Quin occupied last season in the situational packages the Texans frequently use. Quin, who signed with the Detroit Lions in the offseason, covered tight ends in these situations, while also having run-stopping duties.
South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Clemson’s Andre Ellington were not drafted on Friday. Selections for rounds 4-7 will be made today, beginning at noon on ESPN.
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