COLUMBIA — From his first days at South Carolina, it’s been the position that’s most concerned Will Muschamp. While fans were preoccupied with the battle for the starting quarterback position, the Gamecocks’ head coach has been more anxious over another spot on the other side of the ball.
“I’m not real confident in the safety position based on what we saw a year ago,” Muschamp said in the spring. With good reason, given how porous USC’s pass defense was in 2015, and given that its one veteran player at the safety spot — senior Isaiah Johnson — moved on after last season.
USC has no shortage of players who could potentially fill that gap, leading Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson to shift a number of candidates back and forth from the corner, nickel or safety positions in spring practice. But the most promising candidate to fill that void may be a player who missed the final two weeks of spring with an injury.
That would be D.J. Smith, who underwent surgery to repair a thumb ligament he tore early in spring practice. Coaches dating back to the Steve Spurrier regime have always loved Smith’s toughness, perhaps most memorably showcased when he was ejected from a 2014 game at Kentucky on a questionable targeting call. No other returning player at a safety spot brings the mixture of speed and physicality as the 5-11 junior from metro Atlanta.
And in the defensive backfield — which Muschamp famously called “light years away” early in spring ball — that’s just what the Gamecocks need. USC has some options at corner with Rico McWilliams and Chris Lammons, and some flexibility at nickel, where Rashad Fenton finished the spring. But safety has been such a question mark that Chris Moody, who originally planned to leave the program, returned and is in the mix along with Smith and Chaz Elder.
Jordan Diggs, who started 10 of 12 games last season at strong safety, was shifted to linebacker prior to a spring which he missed while recovering from shoulder surgery. Smith played in all 12 games last season, mostly on special teams until he and Diggs began to split time at safety while the season progressed. Smith made one start, at Tennessee, and finished with 22 tackles.
On the post-spring depth chart, Smith is listed as a No. 2 behind Lammons, who seems unlikely to stay there given he’s also listed as starting corner, the position where he worked most in spring practice. Muschamp and Robinson have all of preseason camp to mix and match some more, leaving open the possibility that someone currently listed at corner or nickel could get switched to the safety position before the season opener Sept. 1.
But of the current options, Smith stands out the most. Somebody has to step up at the safety position and help pull that light-years-away South Carolina secondary back toward the future. Smith, perhaps underutilized last season by the Gamecocks’ former coaching staff, appears the most likely candidate to be handed that task.