By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
The last time Skai Moore played in Charlotte's Bank of America stadium, he saved the day for South Carolina.
Moore intercepted two passes in the end zone for the Gamecocks, including one late in the fourth quarter to preserve South Carolina's 17-13 win over North Carolina and prompt head coach Steve Spurrier to proclaim, "The good Lord smiled on the Gamecocks tonight."
After missing all of last season with a neck injury, Moore returns for his senior season. No one will be happier when he walks onto the field at BOA when the Gamecocks open the 2017 season against NC State.
"I'm very excited," Moore said last seek. "It's something I've been itching for for a while. I'm just ready to get it going."
Moore is the most decorated player on the South Carolina team and one of the best linebackers in the SEC. Coaches voted him preseason first-team All-SEC despite him missing all of last season.
He has 260 career tackles and is the first player since 1992 to lead the Gamecocks in tackling for three straight seasons. He could become the first player in school history — and just one of 14 in Division 1 college football history — to lead his team for four straight seasons. He also has 11 career interceptions, third on the all-time list.
Moore is the leader of the South Carolina defense and one of the biggest reasons the unit is expected to be much improved after struggling last season.
"When Skai is on the field, you know Skai is on the field," senior defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth said. "Wherever the ball goes, guess what, Skai is going to be at that ball."
"He is a really good football player," said head coach Will Muschamp, who was thrilled to have Moore return this season. "With how intelligent he is, he retains very well and he is extremely instinctive. It's obvious why he has led the team in tackles three years."
Moore almost didn't come back to South Carolina this season. After the neck injury forced him to miss all of last year, he seriously considered skipping his senior season and entering the NFL Draft.
"It was close," Moore said of his decision. "Last year was a rough year and that was something on my mind that was like a positive, after this year I'm (going to the NFL). … But I talked to my family and my support system and we just all decided that the best decision was to come back, but it was pretty close."
Last season was a tough year for Moore. After making 111 tackles in 2015, he had to sit out and watch as Muschamp implemented a new defense. He tried his best to stay upbeat and encourage his teammates, but it was not easy.
"He's been through a lot," Muschamp said. "I think when you are an athlete at a high level and you have something taken away from you, it kinda rocks your world a little bit. That's what you have been working for your whole life and now they are telling you you can't do it."
"It was difficult, watching your friends and your teammates running around and doing what they love," said Moore, who spent six months recovering from the surgery. "I love the game, so it was difficult."
Moore is anxious to prove to his coaches, teammates and NFL scouts that he is the same player as before the injury. Muschamp says Moore showed no ill-effects from the injury on the first day of contact drills last spring.
"He stuck his face in the fan and enjoyed every minute of it," he said.
"There has been no fall-off," Moore said. "I'm the same player, if not better, than the last time I stepped on the field."
That is good news for a defense that has six returning starters and eight seniors, but is thin on depth and will rely on several young players. Moore will start at linebacker with fellow senior Bryson-Allen Williams and sophomore T.J. Brunson. But the backups are all newcomers, including at least three freshmen who will be counted on to play.
Defensive Coordinator Travaris Robinson says having Moore's leadership is invaluable.
"It means the world," he said. "If you can help a guy on the field and tell them what to do, you have a chance to get it done. If guys are out there thinking, he is nervous, there is a lot of stuff going through a young guy's head, it's hard for them to be successful. (Having a veteran like Moore) calms them down … ."
Moore is anxious to play in the Muschamp-Robinson defense, which is predicated on speed, aggressiveness and generating turnovers. He says the defense is much different than the units that struggled under Spurrier in 2014 and 2015.
"It's almost like night and day, to be honest with you," he said. "A lot of guys just running around. You see the speed of the defense has increased a lot. Guys know what they are doing. We are all playing on the same page. It is going to be fun to watch."
Moore believes the scheme fits his style.
"I feel like it is going to put me in position to make a lot of plays," he said.
He plans to begin that Saturday against NC State — on the same field where he shined two years ago.
"I haven't really thought about the last time I played there," he said. "But the way that we have prepared and the steps we have taken for that game, it should lead to good results, just like last time."