Skai Moore (right) congratulates a teammate after a big play against Clemson.
Linebacker Skai Moore signed with South Carolina with the hope that he would get to play early.
The season he's had exceeds not only his expectations, but those of the Gamecocks.
Moore, a 6'2'', 220-pound freshman from Cooper City, Fla., has played in every game with four starts for the 10-2 Gamecocks and leads the team in tackles with 51 as they prepare for Capitol One Bowl showdown with Wisconsin on Jan. 1.
His postseason honors thus far include second team Freshman All-American by 247Sports and first team Freshman All-SEC by the league's coaches.
"During recruiting, I was looking around trying to find a team where I could contribute early, but I never really thought it would happen as soon as this did," Moore said. "I had the idea of coming here and working hard and getting a few reps. The way it has turned out has truly been a blessing."
South Carolina was a wise choice for a linebacker looking for immediate playing time. The Gamecocks lost all three starters off last year's team, and had very little experience returning even from players in backup roles.
It was the acknowledged Achilles' heel of a defense that had played lights out each of the last two years, in no small part because of the play of its linebackers.
South Carolina got off to a slow start defensively, but it wasn't necessarily the linebackers. It was front to back—line, linebackers and secondary.
When Georgia shredded South Carolina 41-30 in the second game of the season, the Gamecocks knew they had problems that wouldn't be fixed overnight.
Moore says the turning point for the defense came after a 23-21 loss at Tennessee on Oct. 19 that ultimately cost the Gamecocks the SEC East title and a spot in the conference championship game.
"We were coming home on the bus from the Tennessee game, and we just said, 'We can't let this happen again,'" Moore said. "From the time we got back, practice got better. We got better. We turned it around."
The Gamecocks closed the season on a five-game winning streak that included a victory at No. 5 Missouri and a home victory over archrival Clemson.
"This group, I'm really proud of them," said South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. "We didn't start out the way we wanted to start the season, but we've just grown. For them to come to where they are today, we're a pretty good defense right now."
Perhaps not coincidentally, Moore started each of the last four games.
And perhaps it takes greatness in a player to recognize it in another.
"When he first got here, I knew he was going to be a player," said South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. "I told him, 'You're going to be a player. Don't let anything hold you back.'"
Moore didn't. And now the future looks exceptionally bright for Moore and a group of linebackers that features no seniors and only one junior on the three-deep lineup.
"We were the question mark on defense prior to the season," Moore said. "We made an impression on the nation that we're going to have great careers coming up. It should be exciting."
All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise noted.