COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina knew the playmaker it was losing when it learned that senior linebacker Skai Moore would miss the entire 2016 season. But it wasn’t just the presence of the leading tackler and best defensive player that was relegated to the sideline following neck fusion surgery, it meant the Gamecocks were losing the leader of the defense.
Now, that title of the quarterback of the defense is up for grabs among the linebackers and it is a title senior Jonathan Walton is very interested in taking.
“I haven’t had a verbal of that,” Walton said last week,” but I would like to step up and be the quarterback of the defense.”
Really, it’s a title and an opportunity to lead that’s open to anyone on the defense, but Walton sees it mostly as a linebacker-type role to fill. So it’s up to Walton, senior T.J. Holloman and junior Bryson Allen-Williams to rise up and fill that opening on a defense that is thin and questionable on the defensive line and in the secondary.
But the linebackers return experience across the board and hope to be leaders for Will Muschamp’s first season at South Carolina, which Walton said they are all doing by challenging each other to get better.
“That position, it takes a lot to be in that position,” Walton said. “You have to be a leader. You have to be detailed. We are all working that and we are all trying to get better at that. We are pushing each other to be more detailed and be more of a leader, which has an effect on the whole team.”
Walton made 42 tackles a season ago when he started six games as a junior, building on the six starts he also made in 2014. For 2015, those starts were split between the outside linebacker spots, but the senior said he has been working heavily at the middle linebacker position, while Allen-Williams and Holloman have been playing multiple positions.
For now, linebackers coach Cameron Hutzler said starters haven’t been named yet, with that task falling to Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson.
With all the work he has been getting at the middle linebacker spot, where Holloman also has been getting reps, Walton said it may give him the inside track of being the quarterback of the defense.
“That’s up to the coaches,” he said. “I’ve been working hard, so probably by September 1, we will have that decision made.”
But whichever way that decision goes, Walton thinks the entire group of linebackers is stepping up to make up for the loss of Moore, including in its leadership.
“We are putting people in great positions to make up for that,” Walton said. “We realize our loss, so we realize we really have to step up at this time. We are definitely fighting to cover that ground.”
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.