There are two kinds of safeties: the finesse kind that play coy with receivers and perhaps break on more passes than they should, and the headhunter kind that live for the highlight-reel hit.
South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger doesn’t just fall into the latter category, he defines it.
A projected second- or third-round pick, Swearinger was a four-year starter, a defensive captain, and the enforcer in Steve Spurrier’s secondary. His 79 tackles were the second most of a team that features Jadevean Clowney. He also had two interceptions, one against Arkansas that he returned 69 yards for a touchdown.
Unfortunately the pick-six was bracketed by three penalties – one for a horse-collar tackle, one for hitting a defenseless player above the shoulders, and one for throwing the ball into the stands after the touchdown.
You can’t fault the young man’s enthusiasm, but NFL teams have a right to be concerned about his propensity to lower the boom on defenseless receivers, sometimes below the neck and sometimes above it. During South Carolina’s 49-6 rout of UAB last September, Swearinger initiated a head-on collision with a defenseless Blazer that had everyone holding their breath until all parties hopped to their feet. Had he been playing under the newly proposed NCAA rules regarding blows to the head, Swearinger would have spent a lot of time carrying Coach Spurrier’s clipboard on the sidelines.
But when the hits are clean, they are spectacular, as they were against Tennessee where he had 10 tackles, and against LSU, where he also had 10. His season high was 13 against Arkansas, but the most satisfying might have been the five solo tackles against in-state rival Clemson during the Gamecocks 27-17 victory over the Tigers.
“Being from an athletic family, it was difficult to stand out, so we all did everything we could to compete and get noticed,” Swearinger said during an exclusive sit-down interview prior to his appearance on The Panel. “My mom played basketball at Benedict College and was a very good athlete and my dad played football and ran track. My sister is a very good basketball player right now in the 10th grade, so everybody in our family plays.”
As a three-sport athlete, Swearinger excelled everywhere, but his passion was on the basketball court. “Basketball was my favorite sport,” he said. “As much as I love football – and I’ve been dreaming of being the NFL since me and my homeboys would play out in the yard as little kids – I was all about some basketball.”
That versatility and all-around athleticism is the reason Swearinger is getting serious looks from teams like the Patriots and the Ravens. He isn’t big, but he has shown great athleticism and a willingness to play anywhere and hit anybody. That combination hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I was ready for the combines, and ready for all the meetings,” Swearinger said. “It really wasn’t anything I didn’t expect. Playing the style of play that I play – my instincts, how I catch the football, and the competition that I saw playing in the SEC – really helped me. There really wasn’t any area where I struggled.”
He doesn’t believe he will struggle in the NFL, either, even though he will go from being the oldest guy in the locker room to one of the youngest.
“A leader is a leader,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 22 or 30, people see you as a leader and they respond to that. You have to see how things are and you have to get well with everybody and everything. Once you do that, and you show everybody that you’re happy to have the opportunity to be there, it all works out.”
Swearinger hopes things all work out on Draft Day. “I’m not really nervous now,” he said. “But as it gets closer, I’m sure I will be. I’ll probably get more nervous because now it’s all out of my control.”
Control will be a key word for Swearinger once he gets into the league. A player with his aggression is bound to draw penalties and fines. But he also brings heart, commitment and energy. And for some teams, that is more important than the occasional personal foul.