COLUMBIA — Turned out, T.J. Holloman started at middle linebacker for South Carolina after all. And Steve Spurrier was glad to see it.
The Gamecocks head coach appeared to question the lineup change on his weekly radio program Thursday night, given that the move also entailed moving All-SEC candidate Skai Moore from middle to weak-side linebacker. But Holloman and Moore started in those respective spots Saturday, and it was hard to argue with the result — two interceptions for Holloman, nine tackles for Moore, and a 31-14 victory over Central Florida.
“We both have a lot of knowledge about the scheme,” said Holloman, who added six tackles. “We both can play all three positions. It just flows better. Not saying it wasn’t good before, but it flows better when you have a better understanding of the system.”
Elevating Holloman to starter at middle meant Moore replaced Johnathan Walton at weak-side, a position co-defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said USC wasn’t getting enough production out of. “T.J.’s been a good football player, but he’s played behind Skai the whole time, and he hasn’t played,” Ward said. “So you’ve got to get your best players on the field.”
Of USC’s six interceptions this season, five have come from the middle linebacker position. Spurrier seemed against the move on his radio show, questioning why defensive coaches would move Moore, who leads the Gamecocks in both tackles and interceptions. But there was no confusion Saturday.
“Both of them are very good in there,” Spurrier said. “I knew (Holloman) would start, but I wasn’t sure exactly where. That was the best way for us to do it.”
Pharoh Cooper dazzled on a 29-yard touchdown run and snagged a 35-yard scoring pass between two defenders Saturday, but early on he was left disappointed over a very different kind of play — a muffed punt return which gave UCF the ball at the South Carolina 1, and led to the Knights’ first touchdown.
“I got down a little bit,” Cooper said. “I’m not supposed to do that. Players and coaches know that. That’s not what type of player I am. Probably 30 seconds after that I was over it, ready to play the next series. I wasn’t thinking on that play, and that’s something I can’t do. I have to be smarter than that.”
He made up for it later with two scores, including a reverse-field run Moore called “crazy athletic.” Spurrier was OK with the final result. “Pharoh made one crucial mistake,” he said, “but he got two touchdowns back for us.”
Defensive end Boosie Whitlow tackled UCF running back Taj McGowan in the end zone Saturday to record USC’s first safety since one against Georgia in 2009. The true freshman added four tackles, two of them for loss, and his first career sack in extensive playing time along the defensive line.
“He’s a natural pass rusher,” Ward said. “He has a great first step, and he comes off the ball real well. That’s what we’re trying to get him to do all the time. ... Boosie’s going to get better. The more he plays, the better he’ll get.”
As for the safety, “I waited for my time,” Whitlow said. “Stay patient, stay humble.”
With USC running more options and designed runs for first-time starting quarterback Lorenzo Nunez, Spurrier said he delegated much of the play-calling in the first half to quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus, who watched from the coaches’ box. “This is new for me, a quarterback that can run like he can,” Spurrier said.
Spurrier added he “put one in there every now and then,” and took over more of the play-calling in the second half as USC rallied from a 14-8 deficit. The Gamecocks will likely follow the same play-calling approach next week at Missouri.
“If the guy up top sees something, the run game, let’s go with it,” Spurrier said. “Down below, I just try to make sure we get our game plan called, get the ball to Pharoh, this, that, and the other. Sometimes you’ve got to call a pass play and let Lorenzo take off running.”
In addition to Nunez, true freshman center Zack Bailey also made his first start, filling in for the injured Alan Knott. “Not bad at all,” Spurrier said, when asked to assess how the Summerville product snapped the ball.
“A (few) low ones, but Lorenzo was able to get down and get it. So it was better than we thought, also,” he added. “Maybe Zack’s a gamer with his snaps also. Some days in practice he rolls a few back there. But he was very good.”
Bailey, normally a guard, played the center position for the first time after Knott went down in last week’s loss at Georgia. Knott could return from his sprained ankle as soon as next week.