COLUMBIA - As signing day drew closer and closer last February, South Carolina coaches nervously awaited Skai Moore's answer.

They couldn't get ahold of the prized linebacker prospect from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. They'd call and get nobody. They'd leave messages and sometimes receive no return.

"It was a process where communication was spacey at times," said secondary coach Grady Brown, who recruits south Florida for the Gamecocks. "I guess that's par for the course when you're dealing with guys who were recruited by a lot of different schools and have a lot of good options.

"When you're 16, 17 - I guess he was 17 at the time - communication skills may not be at an all-time high. So it was a point in time when he was kind of hard to get on the telephone, but that's par for the course with recruiting."

It wasn't so much a surprise when Moore signed with the Gamecocks last winter. But there was relief.

Brown said Moore "was wavering back and forth" as he chose among a handful of schools. He visited Rutgers on the final weekend of January, one week after his trip to Columbia. Then he dropped out of contact. Coaches held their breaths as February began.

Initially, Moore said he wasn't interested in South Carolina. He watched the Gamecocks beat Michigan in last year's Outback Bowl, and his mind began to change.

"After I saw how the defense played, it just really interested me," Moore said. "So I just felt like I should open my recruitment back up. That's how South Carolina kind of jumped in."

Moore's signing plugged a hole. He was expected to make an immediate impact for a defense young and thin on the second level. Indeed, early playing time was one of the major draws to South Carolina. Moore said coaches promised an "even playing field" in the competition for starting jobs, and they followed through.

In the preseason, sophomore Cedrick Cooper was expected to win the starting job at weakside linebacker. Instead, a dislocated elbow on the third day of August camp forced Cooper to miss half the season. Moore stepped in, slowly at first, eventually building momentum.

At season's end, Moore's place in South Carolina's defense is unquestioned. He'll enter the Capital One Bowl against Wisconsin on Wednesday as the Gamecocks' leading tackler with 51, including 3.5 tackles for loss, half a sack, a fumble recovery and two interceptions.

The accolades have poured in, with Moore named to the All-SEC Freshman Team by league coaches, as well as Freshman All-American Second Team by 247Sports.

"I always had the feeling I had the ability to do it," Moore said. "It was just getting the opportunity. That was the question mark for me, really. But the coaches out here, they gave the opportunity. . I'm just fortunate that the coaches were secure with that promise.

"It's a great feeling to have that title as the leading tackler. It's something I can just improve on. It's another step."

Moore didn't feel comfortable in South Carolina's defense early in the season. Despite seven tackles in the Gamecocks' opener against North Carolina, he was still a freshman trying to fit into the system. The learning curve was steep.

By mid-October, Moore said the game began to slow down. He led the team in tackles at Arkansas. A few weeks later, he had a game-changing interception in a win against Mississippi State.

"That's when I really realized that I can make a play out here on this field - make a big play," Moore said. "That's what really kind of boosted my confidence."

Now, Moore's confidence couldn't be higher.

He's comfortable with the defense. His responsibilities feel like second nature. Against Clemson, Moore had another interception late in the fourth quarter, clinching the Gamecocks' fifth straight victory over their rivals.

"That was amazing," Moore said. "Just catching the ball and seeing everyone react and stuff, that was fun. It was a fun experience. It meant a lot. It was kind of surreal, getting an interception against Tajh Boyd against Clemson, in a big game like this. Thinking back that I was in high school six months ago, and now this. It's a cool feeling."

For South Carolina coaches, the feeling is mutual.