COLUMBIA -- Chris Culliver is where he needs to be.
The South Carolina sophomore originally committed to N.C. State, his hometown school, before changing his mind when the Wolfpack fired coach Chuck Amato after the 2006 season.
Culliver signed with USC, the only school to recruit him as a receiver. But after struggling at the position last year, Culliver had another change of heart and moved to defense.
It took him three weeks this summer to earn a starting spot at free safety.
Talk to Culliver's teammates and coaches and they all say the same thing: The former five-star recruit is in the right spot.
"Chris looks good back there. Wide receiver was not his position," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. "He covers our guys. Comes up, makes tackles at the line of scrimmage. He runs 4.3 (seconds in the 40-yard dash). He's a good-looking athlete back there."
In fact, recruiting analysts hung the all-encompassing "athlete" tag on Culliver when he was at Garner High outside Raleigh, N.C. The 6-0, 199-pounder racked up 147 tackles and four interceptions as a safety his senior year and returned six kicks for touchdowns.
He played only a handful of games on offense. But after Culliver caught three passes for 97 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown reception, in an all-star game in Florida, USC and a few other schools began recruiting him as a wideout.
By that time, N.C. State had booted Amato and the assistant coaches who knew Culliver best. After Culliver re-opened his recruitment, USC and Florida emerged as the finalists.
"Florida was recruiting him as a DB and we recruited him as a receiver, and he came here," Gamecocks safeties coach Ron Cooper said. "As coach (Brad) Lawing says, we told him he could play what he wanted to. We were going to give him a chance and that helped us get him."
Culliver thought he was ready for a change when he came to college.
"I played defense most of my career during high school. But I was considering something different," he said. "I really thought I could make a play on offense. So I really started to be committed to that."
Culliver had a tough time making the adjustment to receiver. Though he saw action in most of the games, he did not have a catch. In his only start last season at Tennessee, Culliver was replaced after two snaps.
"I'm glad to see him where he's more comfortable. He was good at receiver, but he wasn't really comfortable at the position," said Kenny McKinley, the Gamecocks' All-SEC receiver who played quarterback in high school.
"The playbook is already hard enough. Then coming in as a freshman and expecting to play, that's pretty tough on him. He had the speed, (but) he'd never played receiver before. So it's kind of hard for him to grasp route running and everything like that."
Culliver moved to safety in the spring, when he backed up returning starters Emanuel Cook and Darian Stewart. The Gamecocks' shift to a three-safety alignment under first-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson created an opportunity for Culliver, who has made the most of it.
"He hasn't missed anything. He's been on time for everything. Hasn't said a word, sits on the front row at meetings," Cooper said. "As long as he's doing that and trying, he's (in good shape)."
McKinley said Culliver's speed and ability to break on the ball make him a natural safety.
"When you see him out there at safety, he's really a headhunter," McKinley said. "I'm not going to say it's impossible, but it's real hard to throw over the top of him because he's got that breakaway speed."
Culliver also uses that speed as a return specialist. His 809 yards on kickoff returns were the second most in school history (Dickie Harris posted 880 in 1970), while his 23.8-yard average was eighth in the SEC and won him a place on The Sporting News' All-SEC Freshmen team.
Culliver, who said he is not surprised to be starting, is looking forward to facing the school that gave him his first scholarship offer. He has several friends on the Wolfpack's roster; the online trash-talking has begun.
"I talk to a lot of guys, especially on Facebook. Might text each other and be like, 'Hey, we're coming,' " Culliver said. "Just talk a little smack or something, just fun and games."