It’s just two words, and if you’re not steeped in the minutiae of football, they mean little. If you do live in that world, though, they carry a lot of weight – “The Mike.”
Mike is the nickname for the middle linebacker on defense. “The Mike” is the starter at that position. For football players, it means more than just a position, it means a certain stature. In most defensive systems, the middle linebacker makes all the defensive calls, which brings with it a lot of responsibility.
“There’s a high level of trust in making the calls and just being the Mike,” South Carolina sophomore T.J. Brunson said.
Barring injury, Brunson will be the Gamecocks starting middle linebacker this fall. He wants to be more than that. He wants to be “The Mike.”
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“T.J. is a guy who has to take the next step,” South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said. “I think he’s certainly capable. I am really expecting him to take the next step and take that responsibility to be the Mike linebacker at South Carolina.”
Brunson was famously the first recruit Muschamp visited after the coach was hired in December of 2016. Muschamp drove straight from his introductory news conference to Columbia’s Richland Northeast High School, where Brunson was considered the nation’s 35th-best inside linebacker prospect in his recruiting class.
“He has a lot of the intangibles you look for at the position,” Muschamp said. “He’s a very good communicator. It’s really important to T.J. to play well. He has the physicality and all the physical attributes you are looking for. He can run and hit, and he’s extremely bright. I think he has all of that except experience and that’s why you have training camp.”
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Brunson believes he earned the trust of his teammates during the team’s offseason program, and he wants to build on that in the days leading up to the season-opener against N.C. State on Sept. 2.
“Hopefully, they will put their trust in me,” said Brunson, who played in 11 games and totaled 12 tackles as a true freshman last season.
The leadership involved in the position has helped Brunson grow as a person as well as a football player, he said.
“I have learned a lot of things about myself taking on this role as the Mike linebacker,” he said. “I actually believe I’m a leader and I can do it. I have learned how to push myself mentally regardless of adversity. I have learned how to remain strong mentally, bounce back.”
Bryson Allen-Williams will start at the strongside linebacker position for South Carolina with Skai Moore at weakside linebacker. After the starting trio, the Gamecocks don’t have another player who has taken a collegiate snap at linebacker, which adds another responsibility to Brunson’s shoulders – make sure enough young guys are ready to play quickly.
“We feel confident with everybody we have,” he said. “We just have to keep progressing. They’re coming along. I think they are coming along pretty good, but we will see.”