COLUMBIA — His speed left even the quickest cornerbacks in slow motion, like there was a jet pack underneath those shoulder pads. It was an unfair fight. Damiere Byrd often made it look effortless.
Damiere Byrd stats:
2013: 25 catches, 485 yards, 4 touchdowns
2012: 14 catches, 366 yards, 3 touchdowns
2011: 1 catch, 16 yards, 0 touchdowns
He was just 5-9, 165 pounds soaking wet. His jets gave defenders a reason for fear. Byrd would line up wide, and the defense didn’t have to guess what he’d do next.
WHO: Florida (3-4 SEC, 4-5 overall) at South Carolina (5-2, 7-2)
WHEN: Saturday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia
South Carolina’s young receiver was going deep. Every time. Ready or not, try to stop it.
That’s when things usually went wrong for Byrd. Nobody could slow him down, but track-star speed only carries a receiver so far in the SEC. Byrd made sure defensive backs didn’t have to worry. Blessed with all the explosiveness any receiver could want, he struggled at the position’s most basic level.
He couldn’t consistently catch the football.
Byrd’s problem wasn’t totally in his control. He was born with bad eyesight. With blurry vision comes dropped passes, a problem that can end a receiver’s career if it goes unfixed. That’s where Byrd was seven months ago. It’s worth remembering now.
As a junior, Byrd finds himself in the midst of a breakout season.
Byrd doesn’t know what his vision was before. It’s better quantified with actions, not a doctor’s prescription. Life was mostly a blur. Daily tasks were often difficult.
Byrd remembers struggling to read big, block words 10 feet away. It wasn’t ideal for driving, much less being an SEC receiver. If Byrd struggled with roadway traffic, navigating road blocks on the field — and spotting the football — could feel impossible.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Byrd said. “Especially running all the way downfield, and things like that. It would mess my eyesight up.”
Byrd wore contacts. They weren’t the long-term solution.
“They helped,” Byrd said, “but I have sensitive eyes. So the contacts really kind of messed my eyes up after a while.”
Eventually, South Carolina’s junior receiver planned to correct it. Byrd wanted to have LASIK eye surgery at some point in his life, whether he was playing football or not. It made sense to do the surgery sooner than later, hoping to maximize his potential on the field.
Byrd said he had the surgery in February at Carolina Eye Center in Columbia. As the name suggests, the procedure uses a laser to reshape the cornea. In its simplest terms, correcting the cornea allows light to accurately pass through on its way to the retina, creating sharper vision.
It’s the most common corrective eye surgery. Success rate is about 92 percent on average, according to lasik.com. It couldn’t have worked better for Byrd, who knows exactly what his vision is now.
“My eyesight is 20-20 now,” Byrd said. “I have no problems with it. So everything’s fine.”
This season, everything has been better than fine.
Byrd is in the midst of a breakout fall. The junior has 25 catches for a team-high 485 yards, and he’s caught four touchdowns.
Through nine games, he has more catches, yards and touchdowns than his first two seasons combined with the Gamecocks.
Byrd also established his niche in USC’s passing offense, stretching the field on vertical routes. He’s one of three SEC receivers to catch multiple passes of at least 60 yards this season — a 62-yard touchdown against Kentucky and 76-yard touchdown at Tennessee.
This season, Byrd has caught three passes for at least 40 yards, giving him seven 40-yard catches on his career.
“I feel like I can pretty much run with anybody,” Byrd said.
Byrd’s speed has always shined. He moonlights as a sprinter on USC’s track team, where he ran a 10.42-second 100-meter dash.
On the football field, Byrd had no problem losing his defender and getting open. Now, he’s catching passes when he’s all alone on the field. His position coach has seen an abrupt change this fall.
“He’s not perfect. But the post, he’s caught,” receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said last month. “Those two posts (the long touchdowns) — last year and the year before, I can count two or three of those he’s dropped. So, to make that is big.
“He never looks like he’s running fast, and he’s flying. So it was neat to give him those opportunities, and hopefully we can fire a few more deep balls to him.”
Byrd doesn’t want to give medicine all the credit.
Over the summer, the receiver sharpened his craft. He ran countless routes in the muggy Carolina heat. He trained his hands, committing muscle memory to catching the football, so when opportunity came this fall he wouldn’t drop it.
Byrd put in the work. Now, he’s reaping the rewards.
“I attribute it to Damiere working on catching the ball through the summer and through preseason practice and so forth, and now getting opportunities,” USC head coach Steve Spurrier said. “He’s caught the ball real well, learning how to run routes a little bit better, this, that and the other. There are some things he could do better, certainly, but opportunity, plus he had the Lasik eye surgery.
“That’s helped him see the ball better also.”
There’s a threshold young players must cross, the difference between believing what can be achieved and actually doing it. Byrd said his moment came earlier this season at Central Florida, where he caught a career-high five passes for 74 yards.
Byrd caught five passes for 98 yards and a touchdown the next week against Kentucky, and he has been a consistent threat since.
“I don’t know if he’s done anything differently,” senior quarterback Connor Shaw said. “He’s always come to the ballpark ready to play. I think he’s made some clutch plays for us, and it just goes back to his work ethic. He’s practicing hard every day in practice, and it shows on the field.”
Byrd isn’t satisfied with what he’s done through the first nine games this fall. He has more areas in his game to improve. Spurrier Jr. wants his receiver to be just as effective with short and medium routes as he is going deep.
It’s the natural progression for a star receiver, a journey Byrd has begun. He can see clearly now. Up ahead, Byrd knows what goals he can reach.
“Every year, I want to at least double everything that I’ve done the previous years,” Byrd said. “So, whatever I’ve done last year, I want to double that — catches, yards, touchdowns. Whatever it may be.”