Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina
South Carolina’s Akeem Auguste and Shaq Wilson hold up the Palmetto Bowl trophy after beating Clemson in Death Valley on Nov. 24.
COLUMBIA — Akeem Auguste arrived in Columbia four years ago as a heralded four-star prospect from Hollywood, Fla., after spending a semester at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy.
A year later, former Greenwood High School star D.J. Swearinger, rated a three-star prospect by Rivals.com, was a late addition to South Carolina’s class of 2009 after de-committing from Tennessee in the wake of the controversial firing of coach Phillip Fulmer.
On New Year’s Day, the two players will each play their final game for USC when the Gamecocks square off with Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
The career paths of the two defensive backs appeared at one time to be headed in the same direction, but Auguste veered off in July 2011 when a foot injury robbed him of most of the 2011 season. Then, a groin injury and other ailments forced him to miss five games this season.
Meanwhile, Swearinger’s star shined brighter with each passing season and he will enter the Outback Bowl with 235 career tackles and six interceptions, gaining a reputation as one of the hardest-hitting defenders in the SEC.
Swearinger has played in 51 of 52 games over the past four years with 32 starts. The lone game he missed? He was suspended by the SEC office for the Missouri game on Sept. 22 because of a dangerous helmet-to-helmet hit to a UAB player the previous week.
However, the one-game suspension did little to tarnish his beloved status among Gamecock fans. Now he’s got 60 minutes of football left in his accomplished USC career, although it will be just the first of two games for Swearinger in the month of January.
USC is 37-15 during Swearinger’s four years with the Gamecocks.
As far as Swearinger is concerned, the Outback Bowl is the biggest game of his career.
“It’s huge, bigger than any game we’ve played,” Swearinger said. “Bigger than the Clemson game and bigger than those games we won here. It’s the last one and it’s the game to make history, two years in a row with 11-win seasons. We want to be the winningest senior group here. We want to end it with a bang.”
Swearinger confirmed that he has been invited to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. He is regarded as a middle-round pick by most NFL Draft analysts, including Mel Kiper of ESPN.
Among other things, Swearinger is adored by Gamecock fans as being a key cog in a senior class that beat Clemson four years in a row. When he signed with USC in 2009, Swearinger vowed that the Gamecocks wouldn’t lose to the rival Tigers during his time in Columbia, and that declaration came true.
Swearinger will always be remembered as being part of one of the best signing classes in USC history. The 2009 group also included Stephon Gilmore, Alshon Jeffery, DeVonte Holloman, Aldrick Fordham, Damario Jeffery and Chaz Sutton.
There were some misses, of course, within the same class, but the hits were enough to overcome them.
“When we first got here, we had me, Stephon, Alshon, Damario, DeVonte and we said we were going to be great here,” Swearinger said. “We said we would win SEC championships. That didn’t happen, but we made history here and that was something we wanted to do when we committed to sign. I’m proud of our seniors and proud of our four years here.”
Swearinger signed with the Gamecocks about a month after one of the most embarrassing performances in Steve Spurrier’s tenure as coach, a 31-10 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl in 2009. However, Swearinger and the others remained faithful to USC.
“I didn’t really look at South Carolina at all during my recruiting process,” Swearinger said. “I came to games, but it really wasn’t on my mind. They were losing a lot of games, but some of the players got together and said we were going to change this program. We did just that.”
The fact that Gilmore had committed to USC in October 2008 was pivotal in swaying Swearinger towards USC.
“It was big. At the time, a lot of us liked Tennessee,” Swearinger recalled. “Stephon liked Tennessee, too. We were taking our recruiting process together and checking out schools to see what schools we would like to attend together. We decided to go to South Carolina and start something new here.”
Auguste grew up in south Florida 10 hours from the USC campus, so his connections with the Palmetto State didn’t run as deep as Swearinger, Gilmore, Holloman and some of the other 2009 signees.
Auguste last played high school football in 2006. He didn’t qualify academically, so he spent four months at Fork Union in fall 2007. His best years at USC came in 2009 (38 tackles) and 2010 (58 tackles). However, the foot injury he sustained started a stretch of bad luck that has seen him miss 17 games in the past two seasons.
He has 133 career tackles and recently recorded his first career interception. Because of the assortment of injuries, he’s not on the NFL Draft radar for most scouts but hopes to get a chance to pursue a career in pro football.
“I feel it’s been a blessing in disguise,” Auguste said. “I got hurt and sat out. So, I was resting my body. I just took it as a positive and maybe God is giving me a sign. Maybe I need to slow down a little bit or do something different I wasn’t doing. Now he has given me a second chance and I’m trying to do the best I can and make the best of my ability.
“I was questioning myself since I was always getting hurt. But my teammates told me to stay positive and just grind. I’ve always been a grinder and it’s continuing to work for me now. Now I’m making a few plays, so everything is coming along.”
Auguste has a “stack” of family and friends coming from Hollywood to watch his final college game at Raymond James Stadium.
“Going home for me has been difficult, but now I get a chance to play in front of another home crowd for the second time in one year,” Auguste said. “It will be a blessing.”
Auguste has 15 tackles in seven games this season.
“I haven’t been on the field like I was supposed to this year,” Auguste said. “I’ll just go on from here and see where I go. I feel good. I’m ready to play. This is probably the best I’ve felt since Georgia.”
Auguste said that he has spoken with some people about a potential NFL career at cornerback or safety, and remains optimistic that one team will give him a chance to make a roster despite his injury woes the last couple of seasons.
“I have a lot of people talking to me because they’ve seen me play in previous years and I know I have the ability to do it,” Auguste said. “But I also know I don’t have a lot of film from this year at corner. I know I have to run well at Pro Day. As long as I stay healthy, I know I have the ability to play. I’ll make the best of any opportunity.”