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September 25, 2012
D.J. Swearinger looked ready to play right then.
Even on the practice field on the Tuesday before No. 6 South Carolina travels to Kentucky, the Gamecocks' senior free safety had his wristbands and armbands on, his towel tucked into his belt. The stocking cap couldn't quite keep his dreadlocks in place, the braids sticking out in a mimic of his helmeted likeness that appeared on T-shirts last week.
There are still four days until Saturday, when USC takes its 4-0, 2-0 SEC record on the road to Lexington to take on the 1-3 (0-1) Wildcats, but Swearinger seemed to be saying right then that if the whistle blew, he'd be ready to go right then, no question.
The swagger - or "Swagg," as Swearinger likes to strut - was back.
"Like I've been saying all week, it's a minor setback for a major comeback," Swearinger said. "I'm looking to have a great week this week in practice and take it onto the field."
A week ago Monday, Swearinger found out that he was suspended for USC's game with Missouri after what was ruled a helmet-to-helmet hit with UAB receiver Patrick Hearn. Swearinger was naturally steamed about it and vented a bit on his Instagram account, but quickly and quietly settled down.
He didn't like it, but didn't want to make it worse. He spent all last week coaching up his replacement, freshman T.J. Gurley, and didn't speak about it until just before the game, when he offered another small, non-verbal, protest.
Swearinger walked onto the field for warm-ups before the Missouri game wearing a garnet T-shirt with the silhouette of his helmet and braids and the slogan, "Free Jungle Boi." The T-shirts, printed by Columbia's Tin Roof franchise, were a popular item last week.
Swearinger put the shirt away and wore his normal game jersey and silver-framed sunglasses on the sideline as USC flattened Missouri 31-10. Gurley wasn't tested much - the Tigers threw side-to-side rather than taking a shot downfield - but Swearinger was still there, in his ear, telling the rookie what to do.
"D.J. is a team guy," secondary coach Grady Brown said. "He wanted the secondary to play well. He wanted the team to play well and the defense to play well, so he was in tune with what was going on."
It helped him get through the week, being somewhat of an extra coach on the sideline. "I felt like I led by standing with T.J., standing with the defensive backs, standing with the whole defense and offense," he said. "I just felt like more of a leader."
And when his time was up, he walked to the practice field and resumed his normal routine.
"I got a bye week, I used that as a positive, got my legs right, got my body rested," Swearinger said. "Fair or unfair, life goes on. I'm ready to play against Kentucky. Last week is last week and I'm ready to play football."
Swearinger claimed no ill will toward the SEC for the suspension, even after Monday and Tuesday passed with no news from the league office about a could-have-been similar suspension. Florida's Jordan Reed was nearly kayoed in the Gators' 38-0 romp over Kentucky last week by Mikie Benton, a savage hit that like Swearinger's, knocked the receiver down and drew a flag.
But Benton wasn't suspended. The SEC said that while Benton seemed to "target" Reed on the play, the actual contact came initially to the shoulder, not the head, and did not warrant additional action from the SEC.
USC's fans howled for injustice, and had a platform - it seemed very close as to what actually differentiates the two hits. Yet, Swearinger rolled with it, saying he didn't mind, and kept practicing.
The excitement Swearinger feels for the upcoming game could have a negative effect, he acknowledged, as he may be so pumped up that he is suckered into making the same kind of hit again. He said that he's adjusted his aim to prevent that, but not his ferocity.
"Just targeting lower," he described. "I won't stop playing how I'm playing, but I'll at least target lower."
"It's a reaction game," he said. "In a reaction situation, obviously, you don't want any penalties, but I don't think his emotions will play an effect on him making another hit like that."
Now if Saturday will hurry up and arrive. Swearinger seemed antsy enough for it to get here, and that was on Tuesday. It lived up to the prophecy that linebacker Shaq Wilson said last week, a day after Swearinger's suspension was announced.
"I feel bad for Kentucky."
* Brandon Wilds was at practice in full pads and a garnet (non-scout) jersey, but left practice early. Steve Spurrier said earlier on Tuesday that Wilds is probably in line for a redshirt, and is happy about taking one if that is indeed the decision. The health of USC's other running backs plays a part in that.
VIDEO: Akeem Auguste, D.J. Swearinger