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The Making of a Gamecock: Hometown Hero T.J. Brunson now the leader of SC defense

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The Making of a Gamecock: Hometown Hero T.J. Brunson now the leader of SC defense

Editor's Note: Reprinted from the August issue of Spurs & Feathers. To subscribe, visit here

The tale has been told time and time again — about how Will Muschamp left the news conference introducing him as South Carolina’s head football coach on Dec. 7, 2015 and drove directly to Richland Northeast High School to recruit T.J. Brunson.

About how when Muschamp arrived he introduced himself to a student with a Gamecock backpack who told him, “You know y’all lost to The Citadel last year.”

Muschamp and former South Carolina coach Shawn Elliott met with Brunson, Brunson’s parents Thomas and Gloria and RNE coach and Gamecock alumnus Jay Frye (1983-84) for about 30 minutes.

It didn’t take much convincing.

“I couldn’t get dressed fast enough to get there,” Thomas Brunson, a lifelong Gamecock fan from St. Matthews, told Spurs & Feathers. “Muschamp had seen T.J.’s film and had talked to a lot of people about him. He wanted to keep T.J. at home and make him a Gamecock.”

“That day I actually had jury duty,” Frye said. “So I had to slip out. The judge let me go. I got back just in time.”

“We just had to convince T.J.,” Muschamp remembered.

A month and a half later the youngest Brunson took an official visit to South Carolina and three days after that, on Jan. 18, 2016, committed to the Gamecocks.

At SEC Media Days in July, Brunson spoke about how much it meant to him to be the first recruit Muschamp came to visit.

“Everything he was talking about still holds true today,” he said. “What I wanted for not only my football career but life after football, I figured South Carolina, I knew South Carolina, was the place for me.”

T.J. Brunson recruitment

Will Muschamp, T.J. Brunson and Shawn Elliott

Lasting Legacy

Four years later, Brunson has become the key cog of South Carolina’s defense. A senior, the hard-hitting 6-1, 230-pound linebacker has started every game the past two seasons. He has 206 career tackles (15 for loss), which means he needs 121, 15 more than he had last season, to move into 10th on the school’s all-time tackles list. He also has six career sacks.

Though Brunson has reminisced and looked back on his career, the hometown hero still has a season to play as the unquestioned leader of the Gamecock defense. Last season he led the team with 106 tackles, the most for a Gamecock since 2015.

“The guy’s a freaking warrior,” South Carolina linebackers and special teams coach Coleman Hutzler said.

Hometown Hero

Brunson stopped playing basketball in high school when he kept getting called for fouls because of physical play. It was also too much of a prima donna sport for him, according to his dad.

“T.J. was also a pretty good baseball player,” Thomas Brunson said. “But, unfortunately, after football season most times he was banged up and had some injuries.”

Thankfully for Gamecock fans Brunson chose the gridiron. In ninth grade he became a linebacker for Richland Northeast. “The rest is history,” Thomas Brunson said.

“He started for us as a sophomore, junior and senior and I believe he led us in tackles all three years,” Frye said. “He was also our starting punter from the time he stepped out there as a sophomore.”

He was also one heck of a linebacker.

“He really caught my eye, as far as running around hitting people,” Frye said. “We could tell he was going to be a special player.

“His senior year, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a kid stand out and separate himself from the rest of the players. He was just that far ahead. His closing speed. He was more physical. He was cerebral. Articulate. He had everything you want in a linebacker.”

Gamecock Stardom

It didn’t take long for Brunson to earn his stripes at South Carolina.

In his third game as a freshman, the team’s 2016 home opener, Brunson made a key block on the game’s first play, leading to an 80-yard kickoff return from A.J. Turner. 

As a sophomore he started 13 games and ranked second on the team with 88 tackles. He tied for the SEC lead and fourth nationally with three fumble recoveries and posted a game- and career-high 16 tackles in the season-opening win over NC State. It was the most tackles by a Gamecock since Antonio Allen had 16 against East Carolina in 2011.

Against Arkansas he scooped and scored on a 73-yard fumble recovery.

As a junior he was named one of four permanent team captains and won four postseason defensive awards, including co-MVP with Javon Kinlaw. He had an incredible three-week stretch in which he had 14 tackles against Tennessee, 15 at Ole Miss and 16, two sacks and a forced fumble at Florida.

But Brunson remains humble.

When asked at SEC Media Days what his overall rating would be in a college football video game, Brunson said, “I feel like, at this point, being underrated, I’d probably be like a 50 or 60.”

Out of 100.

When several reporters expressed disbelief, Brunson clarified. “I feel like I should be … maybe an 86 or 87,” he said, a rating most above-average or Pro Bowl-caliber players receive in NFL video games.

When asked which attribute would be his highest rated, Brunson paused for 10 seconds before answering, “power.” He then laughed, clearly not wanting to boast about his own ability, before beginning a new line of questioning.

Lasting Legacy

Ernest Jones told Spurs & Feathers Brunson took him under his wing during the former’s freshman season. “Just making sure I didn’t give up on myself,” Jones said. “Because the potential’s there. Everything’s there. Going through that [back] injury I had, I kind of lost confidence in myself. So I’m definitely thankful for T.J.”

“Watching T.J. play and how he studies the game, it’s really motivating to me,” Gamecock linebacker Damani Staley said. “Ever since high school I knew who he is and watched him. I watched his film, just how he goes about it on and off the field.

“He’s a guy you can talk to about anything. I mean, he’ll tell you. He’s been through it more than any of us in the linebacker room.”

When Staley first got to South Carolina and switched from defensive end to linebacker, Brunson was there to help him every step of the way.

“It was really tough at first learning and getting used to a whole bunch of new calls. T.J., he’s one of the guys that helped me through it, especially with play calls,” Staley said. “Not just on the field, but off the field, he helps me a lot with school and stuff.

“He’s always a good person to go to.”

Brunson is the youngest of three brothers. His oldest brother, Cornell Briggs, played defensive back at Winston-Salem State and his second oldest brother, Markas Brunson, played defensive line at Guilford College. (Thomas Brunson played guard and defensive end at St. Matthews and overseas during his stint in the Air Force.)

“They’re quite older than him, but he would play around with them. They would throw him around and he’d jump right back up,” Thomas Brunson said. “They’d tackle him and if he ever cried, he would jump right back up and try to get them down.

“He was always a tough little kid.”

The youngest of three was actually “a big Clemson fan,” according to his dad, something he took from Markus. “When he signed with Carolina we had to get rid of a whole lot of Clemson gear,” Thomas Brunson said.

But the one-time Tiger has become an all-time Gamecock.

When wrapping up his session with reporters at SEC Media days, Brunson was asked about his Gamecock legacy.

“The amount of love and passion and sacrifice I put into the game and to this team and just knowing, at the end of the day, my goal was to help this program go up, back to where it needs to be and where it should be,” he said. “I want people to know that I came here to work and leave it better than what it was when I got here.”

He has, and he has another season to drive that point home.