Eyes lead Gamecocks’ Skai Moore to interceptions — and maybe a USC record

South Carolina’s Skai Moore (10) celebrates with Chris Lammons (3) after intercepting a North Carolina pass in the end zone during the first half of the Gamecocks’ 17-13 victory in the Belk College Kickoff at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., last week. David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

It all starts with the eyes.

From watching film, Skai Moore knows how far he needs to drop back. From picking up on tendencies during the game, he develops a feel for what receivers will run where. But the eyes tell him everything. Playing zone pass coverage, as the South Carolina middle linebacker was last Thursday night on North Carolina’s final possession, he watches the opposing quarterback’s eyes — and waits.

“It’s really pretty much that simple,” he said. “Just read his eyes, and have a good feel for some routes. Going over film, you have a good feel for what type of route combos you’re going to get. It’s just getting a certain depth off those route combos, and then reading his eyes. That’s pretty much it.”

At least, that’s how easy he made it look in USC’s season opener, when Moore picked off two passes in the end zone to secure the 17-13 victory in Charlotte.

The Cooper City, Fla., native added a team-best 10 tackles, and became the first Gamecock named SEC Player of the Week since cornerback Victor Hampton earned that honor following a victory over Mississippi State in 2013.

“Skai’s got a knack for finding the ball, making interceptions and so forth,” said Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier. “Some players can do it, some sort of get lost. But he gets in his area and watches the quarterback.”

South Carolina tallied three interceptions and four sacks in its opener, a promising early sign that the defensive struggles of last season — when USC finished next to last in the conference in total defense, prompting an overhaul on that side of the ball — might be a thing of the past. And for Moore, it was another step toward potentially breaking a USC record that has stood for more than four decades.

Although Moore has led the Gamecocks (1-0) in tackles in each of the past two seasons, he’s often at his best in pass defense. The junior linebacker has now intercepted five passes in his last three regular-season games dating back to last season, raising his career total to nine — within sight of the USC mark of 14, set by Bo Davies between 1969 and 1971.

“Definitely, that’s something I’m going for,” Moore said. “Hopefully, I can get it. It’s something I’m definitely targeting.”

As USC’s starting middle linebacker, Moore is effectively the quarterback of the defense, ensuring his teammates are lined up properly and that linemen are aware of any checks he makes before the ball is snapped. But his ability to read an opposing quarterback’s eyes is “instinctive,” according to co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke. That was certainly evident on UNC’s final play, when Moore crowded the line on fourth-and-goal, dropped into coverage anticipating that Tar Heels receiver Ryan Switzer would cross behind him, and was in perfect position when Marquise Williams rolled out and threw across his body.

The pick was nearly identical to one Moore had made in the end zone in the first quarter. “I’m not going to lie,” he said. “When (Williams) threw it, I was kind of shocked — the ball is actually coming to me. He did throw the second one right to me. I guess he did see a receiver behind me, but just made a pretty poor throw.”

Although USC has earned something of a reputation for producing NFL-bound defensive backs such as D.J. Swearinger, Chris Culliver and Stephon Gilmore, interceptions have not come easy for the Gamecocks in recent years. South Carolina managed 11 last season — tied for 10th in the SEC — and it’s been a decade since any USC player has collected more than four in a single campaign.

All of which places more value on a player like Moore, who at a rangy 6-2 and 218 pounds “could probably play in any system,” said Hoke, whose defense faces another potent offense in Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. home opener against Kentucky (1-0). As the game goes on, Moore says he gets a better feel for the opposing quarterback’s tendencies, allowing him to break more confidently in coverage.

But it all starts with watching the eyes.

“A lot of those guys have a real good knack for it,” said linebackers coach Kirk Botkin. “A couple of those passes, I thought I could have intercepted. But he did his job, is what he did. He went out there, he was in the right place, he did what he was supposed to do, and good things happen.”