COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The countdown is on for injured linebacker Skai Moore's return to South Carolina and he can hardly wait until Saturday's game against North Carolina State.
Moore, the Gamecocks' leading tackler in 2013, 2014 and 2015, missed all of last season after neck fusion surgery. After the procedure he wrestled with the choice to return to school or finish his rehab in the NFL.
These days, Moore is excited that his time off the field is set to end.
''It's something I've been itching for for a while and I'm just ready to get it going,'' he said. ''I'm happy to be back, that's for sure.''
Moore, a 6-foot-2, 218 pound senior from Cooper City, Florida , made a quick impact at South Carolina as a freshman, leading the team with 56 tackles and four interceptions. It was defense that included No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney on the defensive line.
Moore's stock continued his rise the next two years, notching 204 tackles and seven interceptions. But a nagging pain in neck led doctors to discover an injury that require fusion surgery and a full year away from the game to correct.
''Watching your friends running around out there doing what they love,'' he said. ''I love the game, so it was difficult.''
Moore strongly considered the NFL - he's projected as a third-round selection next spring - but decided he wanted to finish what he had begun at South Carolina.
''It was close. What I was going through last year, it was rough,'' Moore said. ''I talked to my family and support system, and we all decided it'd be best to come back.''
It's certainly best for South Carolina's defense, which finished next to last against the run in the Southeastern Conference last year. It part it was because the Gamecocks were missing the kind of speed that Moore routinely gave them in the middle, coach Will Muschamp said.
''Anytime you have No. 10 (Moore) on the field, you're a faster defense,'' he said.
North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said having a player with Moore's successful past is a boost for the Gamecocks and fits right into what Muschamp hopes to do on defense.
''It's a blue collar, hard-nosed team that he has there,'' Doeren said.
Moore's first test since surgery and rehabilitation came during spring practices. He blended in slowly and by the end was out on the field doing what he normally does. Moore has had no lingering issues with the injury, conditioning, lifting, running and making plays in fall workouts.
''I think I can come in where I left off,'' Moore said.
Linebacker coach Mike Peterson remembered facing Moore when he coached with Muschamp at Florida and how the South Carolina linebacker always seemed to be in the right place. He's watched the same thing out of Moore this offseason.
''What I see now, I'm in love with,'' Peterson said.
Moore's got a chance to help the Gamecocks' defense take a step forward in year two under Muschamp. Moore may also cement some spots in South Carolina's record book. He can become the first in program history to lead the Gamecocks in tackles all four seasons. Moore's 11 career interceptions are just three shy of the Gamecocks record for picks that has stood since 1971.
Moore also gets to come back in the neutral-site game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he had success two years ago. Moore intercepted two passes in the end zone against North Carolina in the Gamecocks' 17-13 victory over the Tar Heels.
Moore said he won't think about that too much leading up to this one, just doing what he's supposed to do to help the Gamecocks win. And maybe convince doubters the injury won't slow him down.
''I'm same player if not better than the last time I stepped on the field,'' he said. ''There's been no fall off.''
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