There’s being in good shape, and then there’s being in “You’ve got a date with D.J. Park in the B gap,” shape.
Park is South Carolina’s 330-pound senior right guard. He’s also the person who welcomed Skai Moore back to football after the Gamecocks linebacker missed 15 months of contact due to neck surgery. The ‘B’ gap is the space between the offensive guard and the offensive tackle where inside running plays often are designed to go, necessitating collisions between offensive linemen and linebackers.
“Woke me back up,” Moore said of what was his first full-speed hit at South Carolina’s spring practice this year. “He’s a big, big dude.”
The Gamecocks are eager to have a fully awake and fully healthy Moore back in the lineup this season. He is the first player in more than a decade to lead the team in tackles three straight seasons, amassing 260 from 2013-2015, and he’s aiming to become the first player ever to do it in four seasons despite the herniated disc that caused him to miss the entire 2016 season.
“The doctor said that a lot of dudes are very timid when coming back and hesitant because of the neck injury and that’s why they don’t come back the same so I have been really keeping that in my head: ‘Doctor said I’m fine; I feel fine.’ I’m not ever worried about it,” Moore said. “I’m just going to go out there and make plays and whatever happens, happens.”
Moore, who will wear his familiar No. 10 again this season, hasn’t looked timid so far, defensive lineman Dante Sawyer said.
“It just looks like the old 10,” Sawyer said.
Feels like it, too, Moore said, which is a welcome relief after what he admits was a tough past year. Moore isn’t sure when the injury first occurred and believes he might have been playing with it during the 2015 season, he said. When he learned last May that it would take surgery to correct it, he wondered if his football career might be finished.
“That was definitely a worry in my mind, but the doctor told me that it wasn’t anything like a career-ending injury and I shouldn’t have anything to worry about,” Moore said. “When he told me that, that took a big weight off my shoulders.”
That weight was replaced by another – the decision about whether to return to South Carolina for his final year of eligibility or spend his year off preparing for the NFL Draft. He wrestled with that choice throughout the 2015 season and didn’t decide until the time around last year’s Clemson game in late November.
“It was definitely throughout the whole year going back and forth and figuring out what I wanted to do,” he said. The NFL “is definitely a thought that crossed my mind, but after long talks with my support system, coaches, family and all that, we all decided it’s the best decision for me to come back and finish what I started here and make myself kind of known again.”
The 6-foot-2, 223-pound Moore will play primarily the weakside linebacker position in his first year in second-year head coach Will Muschamp’s defensive system.
“He’s obviously adds playmaking ability, experience and speed,” Muschamp said. “We get a lot faster when he’s on the field, and we need to continue to move that direction.”
Moore learned some of the system while watching his teammates and participating in meetings last year and is picking it up quickly in the first two weeks of spring practice, he said.
“We can do some things with him, whether it’s in coverage, whether it’s in a pressure, whatever it might be where we can take advantage of that skill set whereas maybe we couldn’t with some other guys. So far his understanding of the scheme has been impressive,” linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler said.
While learning the system, Moore also is getting himself back into football shape, which is how the hit from Park helped.
“First week it was a little difficult just getting back in there because there’s nothing really that can prepare you for it,” Moore said. “Now I feel like I’m getting back into it, got my legs back right, my wind back up so I think I’m adjusting pretty good.”
Now, he’s eager to dish out a hit like the one Park already has delivered to him.
“Hopefully, that comes up soon,” he said. “I am definitely looking forward to that first experience where I get to throw my body on somebody.”