INDIANAPOLIS — Skai Moore remembers when Steve Spurrier walked away from South Carolina in 2016.
It was a “roller coaster,” the former Gamecocks linebacker said. Roughly one month after a big season-opening win against rival North Carolina, Spurrier was gone. Players and coaches were informed on a Monday night and Spurrier addressed the media the next day.
“That kind of hit us across the head,” Moore told SEC Country at the NFL combine on Saturday. “But it was a good learning experience. I feel like I got mentally tougher that year, and I’m sure a lot more guys did. So I think it helped mold us as players and people.”
Another major factor in Moore’s development: The program’s subsequent hire of Will Muschamp and an “NFL-type” staff.
“Once those guys stepped into the building and spoke to us, we felt that presence,” Moore said. “Even in our first workouts, [strength coach] Jeff Dillman, he had a huge impact and just changed everyone’s mindset. It was a big, big difference and we saw it quick.”
Last year, South Carolina recorded its first nine-win season since Spurrier’s departure, and Moore became only the 15th player in Division I history to lead his team in tackles for four different seasons. The All-SEC linebacker also tied USC’s career interception mark with 14.
He’s taken the long road to the NFL. After deciding to return for his senior season in 2016, he suffered a severe neck injury that kept him off the field all autumn. Moore eventually worked his way back to health and showed professional scouts that he could still play at a high level.
Muschamp and the Gamecocks staff have been a big help.
“They’re real NFL-type guys,” Moore said. “The defense they installed at South Carolina has helped me mentally as far as the board work [in meetings with teams] and stuff. That’s something that’s been a big factor for me so far.”
Here are some highlights from the rest of the conversation:
Skai Moore at the NFL combine
You were on the last South Carolina team to beat Clemson (in 2013). They’ve gone 0-4 since. What needs to change?
“We’ve definitely got to get more competitive in that game. I think the culture of our team has changed, so a lot of guys will take that game to heart. I think the talent on our side has gotten a lot better.”
Toward the end of the Spurrier era, how did the program culture compare to 2018?
“It was a little different than it is now. Right now, Muschamp and Dillman, they take work very, very seriously. There’s no slacking in practice. No loafs. None of that. So, you know, just the work ethic is part of the whole program that’s really changed.”
Which South Carolina players do you expect to stand out next season?
“It’s a lot of guys. That whole receiving corps is pretty talented. Deebo. Bryan Edwards. Then you’ve got the linebackers: T.J. Brunson, Bryson Allen-Williams, D.J. Wonnum. Steven Montac, even at safety, he’s an up-and-coming player.”
Speaking of Deebo, the offense seemed to change without him in the lineup last year (after a broken leg in September).
“It definitely did. He was a big factor in our offense. Special teams. He was a big player for us, period. So you know, with him being hurt, it did affect us a little bit. But with him being back, I feel like they’re gonna make even bigger strides offensively this year.”
People are going to be talking about quarterback Jake Bentley all summer.
“He’s gonna be a big-time player for us, too. He definitely took strides after coming in. He’s supposed to be a high-school football player, so I think Jake is gonna take those extra strides this year and make more of an impact this year.”
How does he make that impact? Is it stepping up on the leadership side? More passing yards?
“Well, we’ve got a new offensive coordinator now. So Coach [Bryan] McClendon’s gonna open it up a little more. He’ll work with him and get a lot better. He’ll have a lot more options as far as where he can throw the ball.”
What were you and your teammates thinking when Bentley came in straight from his junior year of high school?
“I was kinda shocked, because I’d never really heard anything like that. A dude skipping a year of high school and coming in early. But he was very professional about it. Ready to work. So he was very impressive coming in.”
What makes him different from other quarterbacks you’ve played with?
“His passion. His love for the game. Even when we see him throw a touchdown or something, he’s running all the way to the end zone, getting the crowd pumped up. And it’s the time he puts in after practice. You see him throwing the ball with receivers on the field. He’s been doing that since he got here. At a young age, doing that was really impressive to see.”
What are NFL teams focused on when they speak to you?
“I’ve been doing a lot of board work [drawing up formations and assignments during meetings]. They want to see what I know, mentally. We just talk about my experiences growing up. South Carolina. They want to know my background. Those types of things.”
You’re a Ft. Lauderdale guy. Were you a big Dolphins fan as a kid?
“Yeah, I grew up a Dolphins fan.”
Would there be a little conflict if, say, the Patriots called you on draft day?
“I’ll be excited wherever I go. So if I get drafted by the Pats, I’ll be extremely excited, ready to go to work. There won’t be no love lost going up there. I’ll be good. [Laughs].”
Do you have a Twitter account?
The reason I ask is that this generation of athletes will sometimes have old tweets come back to bite them during the draft. For example, you might’ve said something about Tom Brady …
“Yeah, that’s true.”
Do you worry about that? Did you say anything you weren’t supposed to?
“Ooh. I don’t know. [Laughs]. I’m gonna have to go look and check tonight. But I hope not.”