Future of Gamecock defense turns in several shining moments in Gator Bowl

Sam Wolfe/Special To The State

DQ Smith heard the whispers of doubt during his final season at Spring Valley High.

A quarterback in high school, Smith was recruited as a defensive back by his hometown South Carolina Gamecocks, and they were one of only a few schools to express interest. Not every college coach saw the same potential in Smith that Shane Beamer and his staff saw, but Smith never wavered in his belief in himself.

One year later, on Friday, Smith stepped on TIAA Bank Field as one of USC’s starting safeties in the Gator Bowl — as a true freshman. And though the Gamecocks would lose to Notre Dame 45-38, Smith’s performance was a shining example of why there’s so much optimism surrounding Gamecocks football under Beamer.

The transfer portal and NFL draft decimated USC’s defensive corps, leaving them without starting defensive backs Cam Smith and Devonni Reed, among others, in Friday’s game. As a result, Beamer and defensive coordinator Clayton White had little choice but to lean on youth, giving fans a glimpse of what next season could look like.

The Gamecocks started three true freshmen in the secondary in the form of Smith, fellow freshman safety Nick Emmanwori and nickel cornerback Keenan Nelson — who made his first career start and played just his fourth career game.

Of the three, Smith made the most noise. With the Gamecocks up by a touchdown, Smith intercepted a throw over the middle of the field by quarterback Tyler Buchner and sprinted 47 yards down the left sideline to give the Gamecocks a 21-7 lead.

The moment was an incredibly sweet one for Smith — even if it was soured by the end result.

“A lot of people thought I couldn’t play the position, playing QB in high school,” Smith said. “Coming here and changing positions, I managed to prove them wrong and keep working.

“I know the hard work that I put in, the dedication, the time, how determined I am. I knew this moment would come for me, but I didn’t know how soon it would come.”

For the Gamecocks, the future is very much here now, especially in the secondary.

Emmanwori, another local product from Irmo High, emerged at the beginning of the season, making such a splash in Week 1 that he started the subsequent 12 games at strong safety. Smith followed closely behind him, drawing his first start against defending national champion Georgia, a moment that Smith said forced him to grow up quickly.

In the bowl game, Nelson registered four tackles and a pass breakup in his first career start. And then there was sophomore cornerback O’Donnell Fortune, whom White promised would play a “huge role” against the Irish offense.

With the Irish threatening to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Fortune intercepted a Buchner pass in the end zone and took it the length of the field for a game-tying touchdown — the longest play in Gator Bowl history.

Typically a rotational player on defense, Fortune talked after the game about his growth and the chemistry that’s developed among USC’s young defensive backs. Though just freshmen, Smith and Emmanwori became increasingly vocal throughout the season, and they talk often about developing into the next wave of defensive leaders for the Gamecocks.

“They weren’t afraid. All of them, all the young guys — Keenan, Nick, DQ,” Fortune said. “They played hard. They communicate well. We all communicated. We had a couple of busts on our end, but overall it was good.

“We’re determined, man. We want to win a ring. Everybody on the defense and everybody on the offense. The whole team. We’ve got something going on with this culture.”

Though the Gamecocks young defensive backs flashed their potential, there’s still some tightening up to do heading into next season. As Fortune alluded to, there were busts in coverage, and the Irish generated seven passing plays of at least 15 yards.

But Beamer had plenty of praise for the group, even in the wake of the loss. He’s especially bullish on Smith and Emmanwori.

“Him and Nick both come in as a true freshman from right in Columbia, and to not be recruited at all, they’re awesome,” Beamer said. “DQ is a smart kid, played nickel throughout the season. He played safety today. He started on special teams today. Same thing for Nick.

“Those guys continue to get better each and every week, and they’re big-time players and excited that they’re just freshmen. We’ve got a lot of young players that played out here today, and they’re only going to continue to get better.”