After scary injury, Skai Moore returns to Gamecocks

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore was happy to be back after a year recovering from a scary neck injury, although not that thrilled with spring workouts.

Moore, the Gamecocks leading tackler each season from 2013 through 2015, sat out last season after neck fusion surgery. He was cleared for spring practice last month and was on the field Saturday when South Carolina closed practices with the annual Garnet-and-Black game at Williams-Brice Stadium.

''It makes you appreciate the game a lot more and the opportunities that you have,'' Moore said. ''But as far as it being fun, spring's spring.''

The 6-foot-2, 221-pound senior is more concentrated on the fall. That's when he can again turn into the playmaker he was his first three seasons. Besides leading the Gamecocks in tackles his first three full seasons - including a 2013 season when the Gamecocks featured All-American defensive end and No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney - Moore has 11 career interceptions, three shy of South Carolina's career record.

Moore seems like a major boost for an offense that had trouble stopping the run and gave up more than 26 points a game last year.

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp was proud of how Moore handled his time away. Instead of losing touch with teammates, Moore stayed involved. When Moore got the green light to play, he did not shy away from contact or show any signs of hesitance.

Muschamp said the team's first day in full pads this spring included a drill where ''the first thing making contact is you head. We didn't say a word to him and he went right after it. That's the kind of competitor he is.''

Moore got about a quarter's work in the exhibition, attended by about 30,000 people. He had one blitz where he came in off the left corner untouched and likely would have leveled quarterback Jake Bentley if the passers weren't off limits to contact during the session.

Bentley said he's had to step his game up at practice because of Moore's return to the field. Moore is able to outthink offenses much of the time, Bentley said, because he can take what he's coached to do, tweak it some and arrive in time to break up what looked like a sure completion. ''He's so smart,'' Bentley said.

Moore, from Cooper City, Florida , is the first South Carolina player to lead the team in tackles three straight years since Tony Watkins from 1992-94. If Moore leads the way again this fall, it will be just the 15th time in NCAA Division I a player has been his team's top tackler all four of his seasons.

South Carolina linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said having Moore back opens things up for others. They know their senior captain has their back and his side of the field covered.

It ''means you can play freely,'' Allen-Williams said.

Moore acknowledged it was difficult at times watching South Carolina give up points and yards - it was seventh overall in the Southeastern Conference at 411 yards allowed per game - and knowing there wasn't anything he could do about it. He's sure he can give Muschamp and the Gamecocks that defensive surge they were missing at times last year in the 6-7 season.

''I know I can make plays, go out there and do what I do,'' Moore said. ''I'm going to go out there confident and pick up where I left off.''

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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