Just for the sake of seeing what it looked like, JSU coach Jack Crowe offered Byers to his defensive coaches early in training camp last season to see if the then-true freshman from Florida could provide help in the secondary.
It actually was a setup. No one can remember who it was against — the best guess now is either Gabe Chambers or James Shaw — but they lined up Byers one-on-one against the fastest receiver ready at the time.
“I was like, ‘Please, God, let me get a pick,’” Byers remembers thinking.
It didn’t look good at the start. The receiver got separation early in the route, but by the end of the play, Byers closed the gap and ultimately came away with the ball.
A cornerback was born.
“He just had that mentality that the ball’s in the air, it’s mine,” Gamecocks cornerbacks coach Brandon Cooper said. “He went and got it.”
It was just like the interception he got at the goal line at Eastern Illinois two weeks ago.
Even though that first experience was a setup, Cooper had some advance intelligence that moving Byers from offense to corner could work.
He already knew Byers had the body type he was looking for in a defensive back. The strength and conditioning coaches told him Byers stood out in terms of running and changing directions.
They continued working him on defense and he got in a game on that side of the ball for the first time against Murray State — coincidentally, this week’s opponent. His first play he made a tackle.
“We only played him a few times and he actually played OK,” Cooper said. “Ever since then he’s been building to where he is now.”
And that is as a matchup corner, where only 17 games into his career he’s drawing comparisons to one of the Gamecocks’ best at the position.
He drew Da’Rick Rogers in the Tennessee Tech game, and the Tennessee transfer managed only five catches for 78 yards. Last week, it was looking like he was going to draw former summer league teammate A.C. Leonard, who Crowe projected as an NFL receiver, but Tennessee State wasn’t liking that one bit and started moving the former Florida signee to anywhere Byers wasn’t.
“I noticed they threw it at him a bunch,” Crowe said. “I don’t think they thought he was as good as he was.”
This week Byers could face any of a number of receivers. Walter Powell and Dontel Watkins are the Racers’ two most prolific.
Whoever it is, he welcomes the chance to face the opponent’s biggest threat.
“It gives me the opportunity to show my ability,” Byers said. “I try not to really worry about it. I feel as though God has given me this talent, he’s going to be out there with me. That’s the thing I say before every game. I’m like, ‘God, we’re a team. You’ve helped me to play a good game and accomplish what I need to.’”
So far this season, Byers has 34 tackles — third on the team — with six pass breakups, a fumble recovery and the interception at EIU.
“To me, there are corners who can run, corners who are physical and corners who have ball skills,” Crowe said with Byers sitting alongside. “When you get all three of those, you’ve got a corner. Since Craig Agee, I don’t know if we had quite that combination.
“He doesn’t even know how much of a compliment I’m giving him because he’s never heard of Craig Agee, have you? Walk back across the hall. He’s got an All-American picture on the wall over there, so you can read about him. I’m putting you in some high cotton. You’re not all the way there yet, but you’ve got the same skill set, so I have high expectations for this guy.”
Byers left the room a short while later. His first stop was the wall across the hall.
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.