**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe**
When Skai Moore saw 332-pound D.J. Park coming, he knew there was about to be a big collision.
One that was likely to hurt. But Moore needed that kind of hit. He needed to see if his surgically repaired neck would hold up.
Park, one of South Carolina's giant offensive linemen, was the pulling guard on a practice play when Moore had to step up from his linebacker position and fill the B gap. The collision was his first big hit since the 223-pound senior returned from neck surgery.
"That was my first real contact," Moore said. "D.J. is a big, big dude so I definitely had a challenge with that, but it felt good. It woke me back up."
Moore, who had to sit out last year after doctors told him he needed neck surgery, needed the hit to confirm that he was fully healthy and ready to be the tackling machine he was in his first three seasons at South Carolina. When he confronted Park, he had faith that he could absorb the blow.
"That's one thing the doctor did say, 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," Moore said. "But I've been really keeping it in my head that, 'The doctor said I'm fine and I feel fine,' so I'm not even worried about it, I'm just going to go out there and make plays and, God willing, whatever happens happens.'"
The return of Moore, who led the Gamecocks in tackles for three straight seasons and was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2015, is one of the biggest stories in spring practice. Moore's experience and leadership should have a huge impact on a young defensive unit that struggled in Will Muschamp's first season as head coach.
“It’s great to get Skai Moore back," Muschamp said. "He’s had a really good offseason. … He adds obviously a playmaking ability with experience and speed. We get a lot faster when he’s on the field."
Moore spoke to the media for the first time since his return Wednesday, declaring himself fit and ready to return.
"The first week was a little difficult getting back in football shape, because there is really nothing that can prepare you for it. But now I feel like I am getting back into it," Moore said. "I got my legs back right and my wind back up. … (And) I feel a lot stronger. I definitely feel a lot stronger."
Moore had just decided to forego the NFL draft and return for his senior season when he discovered he had a neck injury and needed surgery. The news was devastating for a player who was poised to end his career as one of the best defensive players in Gamecock history.
"It was very difficult, because you are coming back off your junior season and about to be a senior and all that is on your mind is that you are about to finish your last season, and then you get that. It was pretty difficult to hear," he said.
"But when the doctors told me it was not a career-ending injury, that was something that made it a lot easier to take. I just had to be patient and not rush it."
Moore, who has 11 career interceptions (third on the all-time list), is not sure how or when he was hurt. Doctors told him he could have been playing injured throughout his junior season.
As hard as the news was to take, it was even harder sitting out last season. While he was able to participate in team meetings and attend games, not playing was difficult.
"It was real hard just being on the sideline and not playing and watching everybody run around and make plays and not really being out there with the team," he said. "The support system I had made it a lot easier, but it was very difficult."
Moore's teammates are excited to have him back on the field and enjoying the leadership he brings to the defense.
"It's a blessing," defensive back Chris Lammons said. "We got a linebacker who can play sideline to sideline and he's very smart. He's hungry, I know he's hungry."
"He really helps the young guys out, keeping everybody positive," defensive lineman Taylor Stallworth said.
Moore says he is trying to lead the defense the same way he did as a junior, when he was a team captain.
"I am stepping in the same way I was when I was healthy playing, where I left off," he said. "Just going out there and trying to lead by example and motivate guys and make as many plays as possible. Nothing has really changed from that standpoint."
Moore will be paired with senior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams and sophomore T.J. Brunson, as well as a host of young talent coming in.
"There are a lot of young guys who really run around and have a lot of speed," he said. "The main thing we really need work on as a whole, as a linebacker group, is learning the scheme and getting really, really comfortable with it and knowing where the help is at.
"We have a young group but we're definitely excited about what we got and I think we are going to be good."
The Gamecocks gave up an average of 26.5 points and 411.9 yards per game last season. What do they need to improve on?
"Finish plays. There were a lot of plays we left on the field last year," Moore said. "We just have to really tackle and be a better tackling defense. … You can't miss many opportunities."
While Moore is working hard to get back into game shape and learn Muschamp's defensive scheme, he can't wait for April 1 when he gets to dress out and return to action in South Carolina's annual Garnet & Black Spring Game.
"I am looking forward to it, definitely," he said. "Getting back out to Willie B and playing in front of the crowd again. … I am definitely excited to get back out there on the field and run around and make plays in front of the crowd and with my teammates."
And he's looking forward to his next big hit — this time one he gets to deliver to an opposing running back or offensive player.
"I'm waiting for that," he said. "Hopefully that comes up soon. I'm definitely looking forward to that experience where I get to really throw my body on somebody."