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Gamecocks' Mukuamu can help at safety, but may not have to

South Carolina Georgia Football

Israel Mukuamu was named National Defensive Player of the Week after intercepting three passes in an upset win at No. 3 Georgia last year. Curtis Compton/AP

COLUMBIA — It’s a familiar cycle.

South Carolina starts two safeties. The safeties struggle. “We have to get better at that position,” harrumphs head coach and former college safety Will Muschamp. Two other safeties get their chance.

Injuries, transfers and freshmen being thrust into the role have contributed to the troubles. It was a case where Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson knew they had talent on the field, talent coming in with the next class — but they had to wait for it grow up.

As the Gamecocks began preseason camp last week, each coach saw that talent. There's over a month until the first game, but is there a brighter horizon?

“R.J. (Roderick), Jaylin (Dickerson), I think those guys have been doing a really good job. Guys are going out there a little more aware of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Robinson said. “Jammie (Robinson), Shilo (Sanders) … That’s looking at five guys that can come in and be very successful at safety.”

The fifth is junior Israel Mukuamu, a starter at corner, who along with fellow corner Jaycee Horn, is drawing NFL draft buzz and considered one of the best corner tandems in the country. But realizing Mukuamu stands 6-4, USC’s safeties have often been small, quick players who have no chance of outjumping a receiver and have problems tackling those receivers when they come down with the ball, it’s often been a social media gripe about why Mukuamu doesn’t move to safety.

He won’t move. But he’ll play.

“He reps at safety. Israel’s very smart, he can play anything,” Muschamp said. “Let’s get the best four DBs out there. Right now, who those four are, I couldn’t tell you.”

Mukuamu started the season opener at safety last year, then J.T. Ibe took over for the duration of the season except one game, when he handed off to Jammie Robinson. Summerville’s Roderick helmed the other safety spot after Jamyest Williams transferred.

Improvement among the youngsters has been the push to experiment a bit more. The Gamecocks didn’t want to move Mukuamu from corner any more than they had to, not after he snagged four interceptions (three in a stunning upset of Georgia) and had Horn locking down the other side.

Now? Cam Smith redshirted last year and made great strides in the offseason. John Dixon played in every game last year with one start and one interception. USC feels it won’t lose much if it asks one of those guys to play in place of Mukuamu for a snap or series while Mukuamu stands at safety.

“I definitely feel like I’m a corner, but I’m a guy that you can move me around. I can go back to safety if I have to,” Mukuamu said. “It’s good to show your versatility, so that’s what I try to be.”

Having more bodies never hurts, and having all of them know that a capable player is right behind them doesn’t hurt, either. It won’t be a case of not having real options this year.

Or that’s the plan. Muschamp has said it so many times the past two years that it’s nearly a reflex.

“We need to get better, we need to have more production at the safety position, there’s no question about that,” he said.

An answer may finally be ready. 

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded. Want the inside scoop on Gamecock athletics? Subscribe to Gamecocks Now.

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