Type DJ Swearinger's name into Google, and the first page will be littered with examples of why he's become a college football fan favorite over the last three years - big hits and big plays. While young phenom defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney is the most prominent Gamecock defender, Swearinger is the leader and Captain of the South Carolina defense, and it's easy to see why. The unit as a whole took on Swearinger's personality, playing with equal part's cockiness and violent reckless abandonment.
That's not to say that Swearinger is just a freelancing goon enforcer. One of the things that immediately jumps out about Swearinger is how versatile he is and how many roles he excels in for South Carolina. In South Carolina's base 4-2-5 defense, he's listed as a Free Safety. Over the course of a game, however, you'll see him line up all over the field. He's played as a center-fielder, can go down in the box as a Strong Safety, and even got a healthy amount of snaps at Cornerback for the Gamecocks this year after injuries took their toll on that position.
For a good portion of the game against Tennessee, South Carolina asked Swearinger to shadow Vol receiver Justin Hunter in coverage. Hunter is a big, fast playmaking receiver who will likely be taken in the first 50 picks come April, and the two had a nice battle. Hunter caught a couple balls underneath, as Swearinger was playing with a pretty sizable cushion - understandable when going against a bigger receiver with downfield ability. However, Swearinger also displayed some fantastic mirror skills in man coverage.
Tennessee lines up with two receivers to the wide side of the field running a Hitch/Fade route combination - Cordarrelle Patterson on the outside and Justin Hunter in the slot. South Carolina is running Cover 1 - man coverage across the board with one deep safety playing the middle of the field. This is the point of the game where Swearinger is shadowing Hunter, so he's lined up over him in the slot in off-man coverage.
Hunter eats up Swearinger's cushion quickly, but the safety flips his hips to run with the receiver with little wasted motion. As they stride together, Swearinger uses his arm and body to impede Hunter's progress. Even as Hunter turns and looks for the ball, Swearinger stays locked in on keeping up with the bigger, faster Hunter. He's almost perfectly in-phase with Hunter. By cutting Hunter off though the route and waiting until Hunter moves his hands to make a play on the ball before reciprocating, Swearinger allows himself to stick with a more physically talented player. The only way for that ball to get completed is for the QB to make an impossibly accurate throw (similar to Eli Manning's to Mario Manningham in the Superbowl) or for Hunter to push off and commit offensive pass interference. Neither happens and the ball falls harmlessly to the turf.
Later in the game, Tennessee ran a Post/Wheel route combination off of a Play Action End Around. South Carolina is once again in Cover 1, and Swearinger is again lined up across from Justin Hunter (this time putting him at left cornerback).
With just one deep safety to protect the middle of the field, Swearinger aligns with inside leverage, allowing him to potentially use the sideline as an extra defender if need be. As Hunter starts to sink and begin his in cut to the Post, Swearinger plants his outside foot and swings his hips, turning with no wasted motion. As such, he's stays in position with Hunter the entire way down the field.
As a run defender, Swearinger needs to improve on tackling runners in space, as he has a tendency to lunge and dive in open areas. However, he excels at filling in more confined spaces. He hits the playside alley quickly and violently and stays disciplined as a cutback defender on the backside, showing a good understanding of when to shoot the gap and bring the runner down.
Vanderbilt calls a Pin Toss out with 3 tight ends bunched to the left. By pulling the playside guard and the center, Vanderbilt is trying to get more bodies at the point of attack than South Carolina has defenders. South Carolina is running Cover 1 Robber, with Swearinger dropping down into the box late as the Robber defender.
The Robber defender isn't just there to be a floater against the pass. He has cutback responsibility against the run, allowing the inside linebackers to fast flow with the running back. Denoted in orange, the Spur (a safety/linebacker hybrid in the 4-2-5) has done his job as the Force defender, turning the ball back inside to help. However, both of the linebackers (yellow) have gotten picked off by offensive linemen. Vanderbilt has a blocker on every body and there's a clear lane. In a split second, DJ shoots the cutback lane, meeting the runner just beyond the line of scrimmage.
All in all, Swearinger's versatility and ability to fulfill multiple roles within the frame of a defense should make him a highly coveted player come draft time. As with all defensive backs, his stock will likely be tied to his combine performance. There will probably be questions as to whether he has the range to be a safety who centerfield from single-high coverages. I acknowledge those concerns, and Swearinger has proven over his college career that he's capable of handling it. At the very least, he'll be an aggressive and dependable downhill safety who can do a number of different things for a defense.