COLUMBIA -- The first time South Carolina assistant Ron Cooper saw Darian Stewart play in person, it took about two minutes for the Gamecocks' secondary coach to realize Stewart was the best player on either team.
Of course, Stewart was playing basketball at the time.
After Stewart's breakthrough performance in USC's 16-12 win at Georgia on national television, thousands of American sports fans now know what Cooper figured out two years ago in a high school gym in north Alabama:
The sophomore safety from Huntsville is a natural athlete who excels in the spotlight.
In his first career start against the Bulldogs, Stewart led the Gamecocks with nine tackles, tied for the team lead with two pass breakups and turned in one of the defensive plays of the night.
As a result, Stewart will make his second career start Saturday against S.C. State, according to Cooper.
Cooper said the decision to start Stewart alongside Emanuel Cook at the safety spots was a no-brainer, much like Cooper's call to offer Stewart a scholarship not long after watching video of him at Lee High, which is also Cooper's alma mater, as well.
"He was one of the top players in north Alabama," said Cooper, who went to school with one of Stewart's aunts. "It was easy."
Stewart said Cooper's familiarity with his family was a "big factor" in his choosing the Gamecocks, despite basketball offers from Tennessee, LSU and Memphis. USC next had to decide where to play Stewart, who had 25 receptions for 581 yards and six touchdowns and ran for five scores as a senior receiver at Lee.
USC coaches put Stewart at safety. He appeared in 12 games as a freshman -- mostly on special teams -- finishing with seven stops and displaying little of the tackling ability that earned him the start at Georgia.
"In high school those guys were much smaller than they are up here," the 5-foot-11, 208-pound Stewart said. "I wasn't wrapping up like I am now."
Though Stewart had a couple of touchdown-saving tackles, his Athens highlight was blowing up a throwback screen in the second quarter. He split two blockers, including a 293-pound tackle, and, in the same motion, took down Mikey Henderson for a 6-yard loss.
"We were in man coverage. I saw (Henderson) do a little 1-yard hitch and come back to the ball," Stewart said. "And I just reacted pretty fast."
Those reactions remind Cooper of another Gamecocks' safety now in the NFL. Though he concedes it is early in his career, Cooper said Stewart has some of the same, instinctive ball skills as Rock Hill native Ko Simpson, now in his second year with Buffalo.
"When he sees it, he can burst and go get it," Cooper said.
USC coach Steve Spurrier said Stewart is much faster than his 4.6-second time in the 40-yard dash.
"Darian's one of those players that plays fast in the game and he doesn't time out all that great in the 40," Spurrier said. "We've got some guys that can run real fast on the clock and don't play very fast in the games."
While he still enjoys a game of pick-up hoops, Stewart said he has given no thought to walking on to the Gamecocks' basketball team.
"I just want to concentrate on one sport."
So far, so good.
WANT TO GO?
SOUTH CAROLINA STATE (1-1, 1-0 MEAC) AT NO. 17 SOUTH CAROLINA (2-0, 1-0 SEC)
• When: 7 p.m. Saturday
• Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia
• TV: PPV
• Tickets: Available at 1-800-4SC-FANS