By Josh Hyber/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
As the now-famed story goes, as soon as Will Muschamp’s introductory news conference ended at Williams-Brice Stadium, the new South Carolina head coach drove straight to Columbia’s Richland Northeast High School.
He was there to see a player named T.J. Brunson, who at the time was considered the nation’s 35th-best inside linebacker in the 2016 high school recruiting class.
“He was kind of important … I liked his tape a lot. I thought he flashed. I thought he played fast. I thought he played physical,” Muschamp recalled this week. “… In my extended meeting with him at Richland you could see he had a lot of qualities you want in your Mike linebacker.”
That was apparent Saturday, when Brunson, now a sophomore at SC and the Gamecocks’ starting middle linebacker, made 16 tackles — eight in the fourth quarter — in the team’s 35-28 victory over NC State.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Brunson has become the Gamecocks’ orchestrator on defense. But when asked about his performance against the Wolfpack, a game in which he had four more tackles than he did all of last season, he was reserved.
“I didn’t know I had that many (tackles),” he said. “I was just running and tackling.”
South Carolina defensive tackle Dante Sawyer was a bit more boisterous. When told Brunson’s number of tackles, the senior interrupted a reporter.
“… Does that surprise you?” the reporter asked.
“It just did! 16??”
“You should have seen (T.J.) in camp,” Sawyer continued. “He ran to the ball every play. Every time we turned on the film, wherever the ball was, guess where he was. Right there by the ball. He’s a great kid and a great playmaker. That’s what we need.”
After Brunson played 11 games as a freshman last year, with only sporadic appearances on defense, he was told by Muschamp he would start this fall.
“You have to know what to do playing with coach Muschamp,” Brunson said during training camp. “You have to have his trust and the coaching staff’s trust when you hit the field so when you do you can play fast and make plays.”
Said Muschamp, “Having him as a freshman and seeing him grow and develop, to see how important it is to him to play well, was really neat. He’s very hard on himself, and in my opinion too hard on himself at times. I told him that I shouldn’t have more confidence in you than you do in yourself.
“I’ve had to tell him that several times. Now he’s a guy that’s got a lot more confidence in himself, a lot more belief in himself. You saw him play Saturday. He plays fast and plays a very violent game. I’m glad he’s our Mike.”
Senior linebackers Skai Moore and Bryson Allen-Williams have been pivotal in Brunson’s development.
“They have been helping me out a lot,” Brunson said during camp. “Making sure I am comfortable and helping me out with calls and things like that. The older guys who have helped me out and brought me along.”
In Week One against NC State, it was the understudy who flashed, coming on stronger as the game progressed.
After the game, Brunson was handed a stat sheet and was surprised by the number of tackles he had. He hadn’t had that many in a game since high school, when he put up 24 against rival Spring Valley.
But the performance against NC State was just one game. He’ll have another next week and the week after that.
“Yeah, we’ve answered questions,” Brunson said. “But I’m pretty sure there’s still questions out there.”