South Carolina football: Can AJ Turner play both running back and defensive back?
A.J. Turner’s college football career is almost over, but he feels like he’s playing in high school again.
At Centreville High School in Clifton, Va., Turner rushed for 1,287 yards and had eight interceptions while leading the Wildcats to a state championship. He would like to have a chance to do something like that again for the Gamecocks in 2019.
After playing almost three full seasons of running back for the Gamecocks, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior was forced into action as a cornerback in the Belk Bowl due to injuries in the secondary.
“There were times he was out there, and we’d say a call and he had no idea what the call was,” defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson said. “It was tough.”
The Gamecocks are working Turner at defensive back for the first five practices of this spring so that he won’t be so lost if he has to pitch in in the secondary again. The plan is to move him back to running back for practice No. 6, which will come on March 19 after the players have returned from spring break.
“If he’s had some experience in playing (cornerback) and we keep his hand in it, he’s able to help us,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “We want to put him in a position that is fair for him.”
Muschamp praised Turner during a team meeting for his willingness to sacrifice for the team.
“He’s the ultimate team guy, and that’s one thing that Coach Muschamp put out in front of the team. ‘Here’s a senior that’s going to compete to be our starting running back and for the first five practices he’s going to come out and play corner,’” Robinson said. “That says a lot about a guy. He didn’t say one thing. You didn’t hear him complain, nothing. He just smiled and he did it, and he’s competing at it.”
However, Turner views the move as more opportunity than hardship. In fact, he’s hoping to play both positions this season.
“I know that is hard, but I like the sound of that,” he said. “It reminds me of high school, just always being on the field. I definitely am trying to be able to do that, do both whenever they need me. I am just trying to get on the field and make plays. It doesn’t really matter where it’s at.”
Turner also starts on every special teams unit for the Gamecocks, meaning he could play in every facet of a single game in the fall.
“I think it’s kind of cool because how many guys in college football can say that have done that?” he said. “It’s just a handful. Being in that category I feel it says a lot. I think it says my coaches think a lot about me to let me do this. I’m grateful for Coach Muschamp for allowing this. Not a lot of people get to do this. Anybody I can think who has played both sides of the ball or all three phases, they are in the NFL.”
South Carolina is expected to start three true sophomores in the secondary in cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu and safety R.J. Roderick, and the young players have enjoyed helping their more veteran teammate learn the ropes.
“A.J. athletically is through the roof,” Roderick said. “As it continues to get easier for him, he’ll be making plays.”
Turner had three tackles in the Belk Bowl. In three years on offense, he has 260 carries for 1,322 yards, 47 catches for 335 yards, 28 kickoff returns for 592 yards and 11 total touchdowns.
“He’s competitive. He might not be the biggest running back, might not be the biggest corner, but he’s going to compete in everything we do,” Robinson said. “He is always going to be first.”
Turner is unsure if he’ll get to choose which position he wants to focus on in the fall or if he’ll simply be told where to go.
“It’s not a distinction that I worry much about,” he said. “I don’t want to make it seem like, I’m just a running back or just a DB. I’m just a guy playing both.”