CLEMSON — When free safety Travis Blanks needed medical assistance from Clemson’s team trainers Saturday at Syracuse, defensive coordinator Brent Venables wheeled around in his stance, looking to summon Jayron Kearse.
Venables was looking the wrong direction. Kearse was already on the field, ready to step in as needed.
“I was actually pretty anxious to get on the field, because I’d played already before he got hurt,” Kearse said. “When I saw him from the sideline laying on the field, they were looking for me to call me, but I had already run on the field.”
That kind of youthful exuberance comes with the territory of a true freshman itching for his opportunity. Kearse bounces around as the excitable new kid on the block, matching athleticism with energy to cover plenty of ground. He’s also mistake-prone.
“But the experience he’s getting is huge for him,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Last week I think was big. He’s a special talent, it’s very obvious to see. He makes mistakes, but he covers them up by making plays.”
Kearse had logged some spare playing time in home blowouts over South Carolina State and Wake Forest, but he was thrust into 75 snaps during Clemson’s 49-14 win over the Orange, recording eight tackles and his first career interception.
And Kearse might be in line for his first career start, if Blanks (who injured the PCL ligament in his knee) is unable to play this weekend against Boston College.
“I prepare every week like I’m a starter,” Kearse said. “So when I got out there (at Syracuse), it was just like I started the whole entire game. I’ve adjusted to the game speed after that first drive.”
Kearse is not built like a typical safety. His profile is 6-4 — and in person, that doesn’t seem a generous listing — and 205 pounds, meaning he hasn’t quite filled out yet.
“I’m a big guy that can move real well,” Kearse said. “Because of my range, I can move from hash to hash pretty good and cover a lot of passes when the ball is in the air. So I kind of make quarterbacks have to make a precise throw, or I’m going to make a play on the ball.”
A linebacker who even played some quarterback and defensive end in high school, the South Fort Myers (Fla.) native always wanted to call safety his home.
“I get to make more plays on the ball,” Kearse said. “When the ball’s in the air, I get to go up and get it, make more plays on the ball. Rather than at backer, I’d be doing a lot of hitting, covering backs and tight ends. I really wouldn’t get to show my athletic ability.”
Kearse comes from an athletic family. His uncle, Jevon Kearse, was a 6-4 All-American defensive end and first-round pick out of Florida named to three consecutive Pro Bowls (1999-2001) in his first three NFL seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
Phillip Buchanon, a 10-year NFL veteran cornerback out of Miami, is Kearse’s cousin.
Two weeks before his rookie season began, Kearse was a candidate to play nickel back in Clemson’s five-DB formations. But a shoulder injury caused Kearse to miss the end of fall camp and the Georgia opener, so fellow freshman Korrin Wiggins moved to nickel and Kearse settled in as Blanks’ backup.
There’s a chance Kearse is no longer a backup in the short term. Even if Blanks comes back healthy, he’s at least a dependable third safety, which is just what the coaches wanted.
“You don’t have to do everything. Just do your job and we don’t need you to make every play — just the ones that you’re supposed to make,” Venables told Kearse. “Have good eyes, and understand adjustments and communicate, and listen to guys around you. They’re trying to help you too.”