COLUMBIA, S.C. – When D.J. Smith and his fellow South Carolina safeties line up in practice, they do so knowing that they are under the watchful eye of Will Muschamp.
But while that would seemingly add an element of intensity to the practice, it also brings a lot of knowledge and opportunity to learn from the head coach, who also coaches the safeties.
“He teaches us,” Smith said. “He’s engaged and critiquing us and letting us know what we can do right. I think we are all coming along.”
Right now, Smith is working as one of the starting safeties, giving him plenty of attention as the Gamecocks look to shore up the back end of their defense. It’s a unit that has had documented struggles the past two seasons, but Smith said those times are “erased memories” and called the 2016 season a “new era.”
Instead of worrying about what is behind, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Smith is working on studying the playbook and forging deeper chemistry on the field with Chaz Elder, the other first-team safety in the second week of fall camp.
“I feel like we get along pretty good,” said Smith, who had 22 tackles last season as a sophomore. “We’ve been playing with each other all camp. We played with each other a lot in the spring. I think we are starting to understand each other and starting to get along pretty good back there.”
The Marietta, Ga., native said the defense Muschamp and his coaching staff run has not been overly complex, pointing to it as a matter of learning a lot of different schemes.
“Once you get the schemes down, you’ve pretty much got it,” he said. “The safeties play what the nickel plays. It’s all the same.”
But when it comes to being a safety, it leaves an added pressure of being on the back end of a defense that puts an emphasis on strong secondary play to allow for more pressure coming from the front seven.
“I would say we are the quarterbacks of the defense – or so they say,” Smith said. “Coach is always telling us to be more vocal. He always tells me to speak up and let people know to learn it. If somebody doesn’t know, it’s one me to let them know. The safeties have a lot on them.”
Studying away in the playbook has been the story of Smith’s fall, which he said he is getting a better grasp on as he picks up more day by day. Part of that goes back to the tutelage of Muschamp, as he said everything is being taught well.
It doesn’t hurt that he thinks the new Gamecocks coach also is “a cool dude” in Smith’s eyes.
“He looks out for everybody,” he said. “That’s the one thing I like about him. We are all together. We are like family. He treats everyone the same, he shows everyone the same love on the field.”
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.