Josh Kendall

‘Great kid, great playmaker;’ Brunson has arrived as USC’s middle linebacker

Watching the tape from the N.C. State game felt a lot like watching preseason practice film for South Carolina defensive lineman Taylor Stallworth. In both cases, every time Stallworth saw the end of a play, he also saw Gamecocks linebacker T.J. Brunson.

“You should have seen him in camp, running to the ball every play,” Stallworth. “Every time we turned on the film, wherever the ball was, he was right there by the ball.”

It was the same against the Wolfpack as Brunson recorded a career-high 16 tackles. That was twice as many as any other South Carolina defender in the game and more than any Gamecock had in any single game last year.

“I knew that was coming,” Stallworth said. “Great kid, great playmaker.”

Brunson, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound sophomore, was making his first collegiate start against N.C. State. The Columbia native was a four-star prospect at Richland Northeast High who played in 11 games last year as a true freshman.

“Having him as a freshman, seeing him grow and develop, to see how important it is to him to play well was really neat,” coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s very hard on himself, too hard on himself in my opinion, at times. I told him, ‘I shouldn’t have more confidence in him than you have in yourself.’ I’ve had to tell him that several times. Now, he is a guy that has a lot more confidence in himself, a lot more belief in himself, and you saw him play Saturday.”

Brunson, who had seven solo tackles, nine assists and 1.5 tackles-for-loss, didn’t realize during the game that he was being so productive.

“I got the stat sheet and said, ‘Wow,’ ” he said. “I think it’s the fact that we are going to make plays defensively and our scheme and everything. I think we were prepared in our keys and what to read and stuff.”

Muschamp saw “flashes” of Brunson’s ability as a true freshman and could tell that the game was gradually slowing down for him as he became more comfortable with the system last year, the coach said. That progress is coming to fruition now.

“He plays fast,” Muschamp said. “He plays a very violent game. I’m glad he’s our Mike.”

The Mike is the middle linebacker, who is responsible for making most of the defensive calls. It’s a big responsibility for a second-year player, but not one that intimidates Brunson, he said.

“I was ready,” he said. “I came here to play. I was ready to play.”

Brunson was the first player Muschamp made a recruiting visit to after being hired in December 2015. In fact, Muschamp left his introductory news conference and drove straight to Richland Northeast for a face-to-face meeting.

“I liked his tape a lot,” Muschamp said. “I thought he flashed, I thought he played fast, I thought he played physical. Jay Frye, the (former Richland Northeast) coach, a former Gamecock, talked about what kind of person he was, said he checked all the boxes as far as everything you’re looking for. In my meeting with him, you could see he had a lot of qualities that you want in your Mike linebacker.”

Brunson will have another chance for a big game this week against Missouri. The Gamecocks (1-0) play the Tigers at 7 p.m. Saturday in Columbia, Mo., and Missouri’s high-powered offense will give South Carolina’s defenders plenty of chances to make tackles. The Tigers ran 75 plays, and gained 815 yards, last week against Missouri State.

Brunson’s teammates have plenty of confidence that he’s up to the challenge.

“He works hard, does his job. I knew this year was his year,” defensive lineman D.J. Wonnum said. “I already knew he was going to get after it.”