Always talking, yelling and communicating, free safety D.J. Swearinger has become the de facto vocal leader of a Redskins defense looking to take big strides this season.
Spend an afternoon watching a Redskins training camp practice and, besides the intermittent air horn that sounds between drills, you won't have any trouble spotting where the loudest noise comes from on the field.
It doesn't belong to another artificial noisemaker or the speakers playing music during stretches, or even quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has made a habit of boisterous celebrations following touchdowns and big victories. It belongs to D.J. Swearinger, the team's free safety signed this offseason, whose vocal cords have inspired a revitalized secondary and become the enduring soundtrack of the team's summer.
Brought in to bring his experience and upgrade a position that, last year, was a revolving door of veteran players at the ends of their careers, Swearinger, 25, has already made an impact on the field with his speed and instinctual ball skills hanging back behind the defense. But what the Redskins might not have realized when they signed Swearinger in March was just how vocal of a player he really was. Ask about anyone and it's clear his yelling, celebrating and instigating (which have earned him the nickname "Swag") has been the recurring theme in Richmond, Va.
"He brings this energy and passion that I haven't seen since college," running back Chris Thompson said.
"I don't think D.J. has an off button," linebacker Mason Foster said. "I love it."
"You can't shut him up," said cornerback Bashaud Breeland. "He brings the energy."
It's not unusual for a free safety to be vocal – they're in charge of lining up the rest of the defensive backs on the field, calling out any audibles and checks based on the offense's movements – but Swearinger goes above and beyond (audibly, that is) his responsibilities.
Take the third day of training camp, the first practice the team was allowed to strap on pads and make football seem as authentic as it's been since January. Swearinger, watching the second-team unit and listening to helmets pop, began his chirping after the defense made consecutive nice plays. "That's when the real come out!" he yelled, trying to get under the skin of the offense.
Later, as the defense continued its dominance, he engaged the entire group of burgundy jerseys to squawk like birds, trying to get inside the offense's collective head. It was ridiculous, and it eventually morphed into the unit chanting "DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE," becoming their own cheerleaders. When Breeland caught an interception and returned it for a touchdown, Swearinger sprinted down the field to greet him in the end zone, leading a horde behind him happy to follow their unabashed leader – hair flying and mouth yapping.
When Swearinger got to him, he began patting down Breeland like a TSA agent, a variation on the secondary's nickname he imposed this spring: "Flight Marshals."
"Just patting them down [to] make sure he has no straps on the plane," Swearinger explained. "We control anything in the air, we going to keep the red seatbelt light on [and] keep everybody strapped in."
That kind of celebrating – the kind that turns a high-five or compliment into a full-fledged mob attack – was missing last year. "We used to see guys get interceptions and all say 'yeah, good play,'" safety Deshazor Everett said. "But like now, everybody runs with them you know, we run down and celebrate with the guys so that's just the difference."
It's not easy to turn this kind of emotional behavior into a natural response. Training camp, as much as it provides bonding and cohesion, is also about fierce competition, and it makes sense that fringe players looking to find their way onto the roster might not want to celebrate a teammate's big play so loudly. Swearinger, however, has made that idea seem counterintuitive.
"You know, it helps everybody out," Everett said of Swearinger's talking. "It makes me want to talk more. I see that D.J. talking helps out everybody else, so let me talk while I'm out there. So I can help everyone help everybody else."
Leader from birth
Swearinger has always been this way.
"I'm a natural leader from birth," he said. "My mom told me that, been telling me that all my life. You know, she told me to lead not to follow, and lead first and foremost, and that's what, you know, a lot of the energy, the excitement, and when we get people lined up, that's where a lot of that comes from."
He found a reason to use his voice and leadership skills once he started playing team sports. His style, however, didn't always receive warm welcoming, from junior leagues to the NFL, where coaches have mischaracterized his noise as arrogant and insulting.
"My dad got on my middle school coach one time because I think my middle school coach told my dad that 'He done too much,' you know what I am saying? 'He does his thing,'" Swearinger said. "My dad was like 'Man, he's just an energized dude, you just got to let him do his thing. He's going to make plays for you.'"
"They kind of tried and put a lid on it," he said. "But it didn't work."
The next year, Swearinger started at quarterback and led his seventh-grade team to an 8-0 record. By the time he reached Greenwood High School, playing alongside cornerback Josh Norman, Swearinger's voice matched his athleticism in staggering ways.
During his senior year, Swearinger started at running back and safety. He switched to wide receiver when their top receiver got injured and then stepped in at quarterback after the team's starter was knocked out for the season. He learned when to turn his volume up and down, depending on which side of the ball he stood. "I had to go back to the quarterback mentality on offense but then comes the defense getting back live," he said. "So it was definitely a two-tone thing."
Regardless of his position, Swearinger's habit of racing down the field to energize his teammates has always been inside of him.
"You can ask Josh [Norman] in high school, man, people used to clown me because of how hard I used to hit people on the head after they make a play," he said. "Just slapped people so hard in high school, man, but that's sort of calmed down when the concussion thing came out. I didn't want to hit people too hard across the head. But I've always been that hype guy, man, that energy booster. You know somebody need a play or somebody down, I'm always that guy to try and get them up. That's just the type of person I am. You know, I always want to see people happy and having fun."
When Swearinger entered the league with the Houston Texans that fun faced another road block with coaches, who didn't appreciate the sonorous qualities he brought. Discontent stemmed early when Houston put him at dime linebacker and strong safety, away from the natural free safety position he had played at South Carolina.
In his second year, coaches took exception to his vocal stylings. They couldn't grasp the reasoning for initiating dialogue between the offense and defense, boasting about big defensive plays and antagonizing his teammates for it. "Some of the coaches didn't know how to take it, you know, me talking trash," Swearinger said.
"It's not that I'm getting at nobody, it's just we competing man," Swearinger reasoned. "It's all love. You know, everything you do [is] trying to make that guy better. I don't try to disrespect nobody. You know after practice is over, I love them guys just like my brothers, man. In practice, when we're getting better, I see the other side is my enemy. So while I'm out there, man, we got to do our best to compete against each other to make us better, to make our team better, so that's where it comes in."
The Redskins have embraced this belief. As the defense gets rowdy, the offense will fire back. At one point during a recent practice, after the third team offense completed a 15-yard pass, tight end Niles Paul chirped back. "Why y'all so quiet?"
"If something doesn't go your way and you here a guy chirping on the other side, you going to have an attitude about it, you going to want to say something about it," Everett said. "It's going to make you want to go out and make a play so you know all it's going to do is better everybody on this team."
"He makes it fun out here, he gets his defense going and when we beat the defense on certain plays we're able to back at him," Thompson said. "None of it is serious. We're going to do that to each other, and it only makes us better."
Is there a downside to being so vocal? Players don't really see one.
The only issue linebacker Will Compton foresees cropping up is stamina. As the team's other vocal leader at the Mike linebacker position, he knows that he can occasionally run out of energy to make an effective call. Thus, training camp can be a matter of both physical and vocal conditioning.
"There's been games where I come out of the game hoarse from just communicating so loud [and] the crowd is so loud I can't talk," Swearinger said. "After the game, I'll be just hoarse. So there's been times where I'm hoarse, but not because I'm tired."
The hidden burden of being a loud leader is having to be one all the time. Swearinger is rarely soft-spoken, but he knows he can lose his wild abandon sometimes when the team is trailing and spirits are low. Diagnosing those quieter moments is something Compton has thought about on the field, and Swearinger knows it's his responsibility to be the sonic barometer for the team.
"Every day I come out here, man, I got to be myself," Swearinger said. "If I come out here and I'm not energized or if I'm not talking [and] if I'm not communicating with my guys, there's something wrong."
"It feeds the whole entire defense," Foster said. "You can see through practice, it keeps you going, when you down, or somebody's down, he gets you right back up. It's the same way for all of us. When he's down we get him up. It feeds our defense and it's just infectious."
The Redskins are hoping this will translate, of course, to increased production on the field. Every indication says that will be the case.
There are his stats from last year, playing at free safety with the Cardinals, in which he grabbed a career high three interceptions and totaled 66 tackles. There are his coaches, specifically defensive backs coach Torrian Gray, who has been impressed with his football IQ and communication in teaching fellow safety Su'a Cravens. And there are his teammates, who can't get too mad at his noise because, well, he's been proving its effectiveness all over the practice field.
"I mean, he's backing up what he's talking, so it ain't like you can call him out on a lot," left tackle Trent Williams said. "It's quiet out there, no music, sometimes you just get tired of hearing it and you just give him a little chatter back, but I mean for the most part, it's nice, it's clean, it's healthy competitiveness and it's what we need."
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