College Sports

The unseen side of TJ Brunson’s ‘warrior’ season for the Gamecocks

What TJ Brunson expects from linebackers, tackling in 2019

South Carolina senior linebacker TJ Brunson looks ahead to the 2019 season.
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South Carolina senior linebacker TJ Brunson looks ahead to the 2019 season.

At SEC Media Days in July, South Carolina linebacker T.J. Brunson let on that he’d played much of the 2018 football season hurt. He didn’t let on much about it during the fall, and then missed all of spring after surgery.

But he didn’t let on about another thing that was probably ailing him: He had every right to be dog tired.

His position coach, Coleman Hutzler, explained the staff put a big workload on him out of necessity, if nothing else.

“T.J. Brunson shouldn’t have to play 900 snaps of defense,” Hutzler said. “I asked the room the first day, ‘Whose fault is that?’ And I raised my hand, number one. But Ernest Jones raised his hand and Rosendo Louis raised his hand. And, you know, Damani Staley raised his hand. We understand the disappointment we had last year as a group, and as a defense.”

To put that 900 snaps in context, it averages out to at minimum 69.2 per game. South Carolina’s opponents were at 75.9 total per game.

That means Brunson got maybe a drive off each game, maybe two. In South Carolina’s final three games against Power 5 opponents in the regular season, he averaged 84 snaps a game.

The only way to deal with it was to power through.

“You basically just come in with the mindset to go to work,” Brunson said. “And whatever is going on with you, you have to do what you can to help that. You can only do but so much, so you have to put it in the back of your head.”

But his coach, the one who accepted blame for him being out there so long, paid him respect while also acknowledging the downside of playing so much.

“You wear down, man,” Hutzler said. “I appreciate and I told T.J., I mean, guy is a warrior, man. And he battled through it all, finished for us.

“But we’re not gonna have to do that anymore.”

The hope is the depth behind him comes along better. Going into last fall, the top inside linebacker reserves were a second-year player and former defensive end in Staley; Louis, who seemed to struggle getting his first college action; and Eldridge Thompson, who got hurt early on a year ago. Jones also missed the start of the season recovering from a back injury.

Thompson is back, and the staff seems particularly high on Jones. If those two can see bigger roles and Louis and Staley can deliver something, it takes a lot off Brunson and Sherrod Greene. Now Brunson could wind up starting at the weakside linebacker spot, as Greene has a concussion, with Jones starting in the middle).

For his part, Brunson he expects more speed and explosiveness after being dinged up and worn out last season.

He managed to post 106 tackles, 10 1/2 for loss and four sacks last season. That came a year after he stepped in for a motley crew of departing middle linebacker beside Skai Moore and delivered 88 tackles.

The soft-spoken 230-pounder from Richland Northeast High School was one of Will Muschamp’s first recruits and was voted a team captain last season.

The development behind him allows for some more flexibility for coordinator Travaris Robinson, which in turn allows a luxury for Brunson.

“Just to be able to give a guy series,” Hutzler said. “T-Rob doesn’t have to second guess what he’s calling because of who’s in the game. Right? To be able to just mix and match and play ball. And I got 100% confidence myself and T Rob does as well that we’re going to execute.”

Perhaps that snaps number can get closer to 60, probably a decent guideline for a maximum.

Brunson is back at it, going through the practice grind he missed out on when he was sidelined in spring. Heading into his senior season, he has hope he won’t be as tired and a better spot to start from.

“I felt the best I’ve felt in years,” Brunson said.

South Carolina vs. UNC

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte


Line: South Carolina by 8