COLUMBIA — First game of the season. First quarter of the game.
The wait and anticipation had finally ended on Aug. 29 when South Carolina kicked off its fall against North Carolina. These aren't the moments for seismic shifts to a team's depth chart, even if it usually seems to happen that way.
Sophomore safety T.J. Gurley learned that against the Tar Heels. He was over on the sideline when safety Kadetrix Marcus dislocated his shoulder. Marcus was lost for the game, as well as this week.
Gurley's role changed with no warning.
“That's why we always push guys to prepare as if they are going to be a starter,” secondary coach Grady Brown said.
Gurley admitted he was nervous against the Tar Heels. He sure didn't show it. The sophomore led USC with nine tackles. After the game, head coach Steve Spurrier gave him the game ball.
This week, Gurley got something even better.
Gurley will start his first career game Saturday when the No. 6 Gamecocks travel to Athens for a 4:30 p.m. kickoff against No. 11 Georgia. A Cairo, Ga., native, the biggest game of Gurley's young career will be against his home-state team.
It's enough to keep a college student awake at nights. But, if Gurley was nervous last week, he said the butterflies have disappeared.
“It ain't no pressure, really,” Gurley said. “... I had to go in and show what I could do and gain the trust back from the coaches. That's what I went out there and did, but it ain't no pressure, really, going into the Georgia game.”
“No pressure” may be an overstatement. Still, Gurley isn't the only one with full confidence in his abilities against the Bulldogs.
It took Gurley longer to gain a starting job than most expected. He spent all offseason recovering from a torn ACL he suffered against Florida last fall.
Now, those issues are in the past. The opener last week proved that.
“He played his position well,” Spurrier said. “T.J.'s a good, solid player. He played well last week.”
Gurley admitted his recovery after the knee injury was challenging, especially with the mental part of the game. He struggled initially to make the right calls behind the defense, something expected from every safety.
Still, he pushed through, shedding the rust in the weight room. Returning to 100 percent health was all Gurley talked about around his team.
“T.J., he's a guy who works hard. He's always going to be ready,” senior defensive end Chaz Sutton said. “I believe in T.J. He's a young guy who came into this program last year, and he just worked his butt off every day. When I used to go in for extra workouts on Saturdays and Sundays, he was in there with me, just trying to get better.
“He's just a guy that you just rely on because he's always going to work hard and go the extra mile to make sure he's prepared for the task at hand.”
For Gurley and USC's defense, the task at hand is a rough one. Gurley knows he's in for a tough, physical game trying to stop Georgia's power running attack.
But he's worked too hard — and come too far — to lose confidence now. He's still got a chip on his shoulder, still feeling like he has something to prove. The youngster has arrived. He's a starter in the SEC.
He still wants more.
“I didn't really get no feedback,” Gurley said. “I don't really want no feedback. I've just got to keep showing that I can play. They ain't really going to give you no feedback. As a coach, they're not supposed to do that.
“I've just got to keep going out there and proving to them that I can play.”