COLUMBIA — For every bone-jarring hit, every time his helmet beat his feet to the ground, every time he was squashed under some defensive lineman wanting him for dinner, A.J. Turner has a message.
It’s clobberin’ time.
“We were at Missouri and it was a kick return, dude came out of nowhere. It wasn’t hard, but I got ka-powed,” South Carolina’s senior running back turned cornerback said. “Every chance I get to hit somebody in camp, I’m definitely coming full force, for sure.”
It might be a little unfair to take out three years of aggression on his teammates, but it will pay off during the season. All of the wallops and belts he accepted are being channeled into what to deliver to opponents.
“Taking and now giving,” he said. “I view it on defense as it’s my turn. My turn to hit you.”
The Gamecocks were running desperately thin on defensive backs last season so they asked Turner to rep at corner, just in case. Sure enough, Steven Montac and Rashad Fenton each went down during the Belk Bowl so Turner checked in for the first defensive snaps of his college career.
He wasn’t a complete stranger to it. Turner played both sides of the ball in high school and he had six tackles, all on special teams, for USC in 2017. He logged three tackles in the Belk Bowl and figured he’d be returning to running back in the fall.
But the Gamecocks’ running back room was crowded, and while Turner has been productive (over 1,300 rushing yards, another 335 receiving and 11 touchdowns), he would have been in for another season of splitting carries. At corner, he could probably play more consistently, and perhaps start.
“Honestly, I feel like I already have a defensive mentality,” he said. “I love to hit, I love to be physical, fly around the ball. I feel like I’m good as far as the mindset and physicality.”
And he’ll still be the Gamecocks’ No. 1 kickoff returner. And he could still help out at running back in a pinch.
Tired? Confused? Taking it easy during camp?
“A.J.’s a War Daddy, man. He’s a guy that’s been a great player for us on offense, he played defense last year and obviously for us on special teams,” special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler said with a father’s pride. “A hundred miles per hour, man, all the time. That’s why we love him.”
Turner responded with a puzzled grin and shoulder shrug when asked the question everyone in the room wanted answered:
What is a "War Daddy"?
“I guess just the important guy on special teams?,” he replied with clear uncertainty.
Then, when informed coach Will Muschamp once called him a “demon” in kick coverage, Turner began brushing his hair, checking for horns.
“I don’t think I’m a bad guy or anything,” he said with a smile.
The Gamecocks don’t think so either. It’s why they depend on him so much.
It was Turner as the off-back on kickoff returns while Deebo Samuel dazzled the past two years — Turner providing the proud but anonymous work of plowing into the lead blocker so Samuel could make his move (which resulted in four touchdowns). It was Turner splitting playing time with Mon Denson, David Williams, Ty’Son Williams and Rico Dowdle in the Gamecocks' running back carousel.
If USC needed somebody to plug a gap, or somebody just to help out, they’d check all their options and more often than not select Turner.
Being a full-time defender thus far in camp hasn’t been much of an adjustment since Turner was already invested in plenty of offseason running. He’d prefer a practice here or there at running back just in case he gets tossed back into the rotation this season (a heavy possibility considering the position’s unsteadiness the past three years) but feels ready to play running back if called upon.
“He strictly played corner and did a nice job,” Muschamp said Monday after the Gamecocks’ first scrimmage. “Did a really nice job.”
The senior did need to lean on a few underclassmen for advice. Defensive backs Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu are the leaders of the secondary despite their youth, so Turner had to dismiss any hesitation about approaching them.
Not that he needed much help.
First day of camp, he recorded his first interception.