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Skai Moore is Ready to Go

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Patience and perspective have merged with persistence and production as Skai Moore readies to re-emerge.

I definitely appreciated the spring a lot more. It makes you appreciate the game a lot more and the opportunities you have, just being able to go out there and practice.
~Skai Moore

Skai Moore is back healthy for South Carolina and few linebackers in college football have been more dynamic. After leading the Gamecocks in tackles three years in a row from 2013-2015, and recording 12.5 tackles for loss and eleven interception in than span, a herniated disk kept Moore off the field last fall. With a different perspective and extra motivation, Moore returns with unfinished business.

An early-enrollee after winning a Florida state title as a prep senior, Moore burst onto the scene as a true freshman, compiling 56 tackles and four interceptions, both team highs. South Carolina, with Moore stepping in as a top playmaker, ranked second in the SEC in scoring defense and won six straight games at the end of its schedule. In his first clash with Clemson, Moore recovered a fumble and picked off a pass in a 31-17 triumph between two top ten teams. He recorded two interceptions in a Capital One Bowl win over Wisconsin for an encore.  

Moore's sophomore season saw him finish in the top ten in the SEC in tackles per game and collect four more turnovers. Once again, Moore was at his best down the home stretch, with 12 tackles at Florida, two picks versus South Alabama, another interception against the rival Tigers and an award-winning showing in an Independence Bowl victory over Miami where he was named defensive MVP. The one game Moore missed that year, against Tennessee, was the outing where the Gamecocks allowed the most offensive points. 

Two years ago, Moore was one of the most productive linebackers in the country. He paced South Carolina with 111 total stops, 6.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, four pass break-ups and three forced fumbles, leading the way as one of six team captains. Among other standout showings, Moore opened the year with two endzone picks in a tough win over North Carolina, set a career-high with 14 tackles at Texas A&M and excelled, again, in the Palmetto Bowl with 13 more stopps and two forced fumbles against Clemson. Correspondingly, he earned second-team all-league honors.   

A paint-by-number progression was then halted at its peak as Moore, potentially ready for an All-American senior season, and with a number of notable records within reach, missed all of last fall after recovering from neck surgery. It was a frustrating side-step for an accomplished locker room leader and a player poised for a banner year. Moore watched from the sidelines as defensive guru Will Muschamp took over as the new head coach of the Gamecocks.

Months away from the game were tough for Moore as much, for the standout playmaker, was beyond his control. That said, his resolve remained true. 

Unofficially, at least, Moore was back at Williams-Brice Stadium for South Carolina's annual spring game. It was a meaningful moment for him and an uplifting one for fans and teammates alike. Even in limited action in an intrasquad scrimmage, suiting up and settling in was somewhat of a return to normalcy for both Moore and the Gamecocks. The appearance gives him some momentum moving forward.

"He's a good football player, and he's extremely instinctive. It was good to have him back. I wanted to get him about a quarter today just to get back on the field and feel what it's like to be on the field before fall camp," Muschamp explained. "I'm extremely proud of how he's handled very difficult situation and a very difficult year for him."

Even before the "Garnet and Black Game", there was a conviction to Moore's effort in practice sessions. He displayed many of the same traits that have made him an all-conference linebacker; something Moore didn't show, however, stood out to his head coach. 

"Never a tentative moment," Muschamp continued. "His first day was our third day in pads. We did the cock drill, which is one-on-one, and the first thing making contact is your head. He got in that drill, we didn't say a word to him, and he went right after it. That's the type of competitor he is." 

Rest and rehabilitation led to a recalibration for one of college football's best defenders, at least in some ways.   

"I definitely appreciated the spring a lot more. It makes you appreciate the game a lot more and the opportunities you have, just being able to go out there and practice," Moore nodded. "But as far as it being fun, spring is spring, so not too fun, probably."

The process has come full-ciricle for Moore. A return to health has him back in stride. The focus is, once again, on football.

"Once I got the okay and the clear from the doctor I pretty much put all the concerns about any type of a re-injury behind me and just went out there and just tried to be where I came off from," he stated.

Moore has always made an impact, however and whenever possible. He recovered a key onside kick attempt as a special teamer early in his career. Fittingly, Moore has been recognized both in spring practice workouts and regular season games for his efforts. Even when he was sidelined due to injury, Moore's leadership was still felt. His work ethic has been a prime example for young players.    

Soon, Moore plans to be back in his same routine.

"I know I can make plays, I just go out there and do what I do. I'm pretty confident in being able to come in where I left off and being able to make plays," he added.

Plenty of players stepped up in Moore's absence a year ago as South Carolina ranked seventh in the SEC in total defense. Having him back in the lineup will help make up for the departures of T.J. Holloman, Chris Moody and Jonathan Walton at linebacker. In addition to his remarkable playmaking ability, Moore's savvy, alone, will continue to benefit those around him. He will set the tone for the Gamecocks defensively. 

"We were out there practicing at times, and I'll just go off of his instincts and play right off of him," nodded Bryson Allen-Williams. "And having someone play next to you that you know is a sure thing allows you to go out and play freely because you know there's someone right next to you that makes the play too."

Expectations are high for South Carolina this fall and Moore is a big reason why. With 260 career tackles, it's possible he could move into the top five in program history in total stops. He is also close to the Gamecocks' all-time interception mark. Perhaps most impressively, Moore could become the first defender ever at South Carolina to lead the team in tackles four consecutive seasons; such an accomplishment has only been done 14 times in Division I football. 

Patience and perspective have merged with persistence and production as Moore readies to re-emerge. There isn't a more accomplished linebacker in the SEC. 

A team leader is back in place; a record-setting continuation may be, as well.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports