“During Christmas break,” the junior linebacker known to his teammates as Spiderman said, “Coach (Chuck) Dunn had texted a few linebackers. We got the message, but none of us responded back to him. It was funny because the first time we met him he chewed us out for not responding. First meeting. I was like, ‘Oh my.’”
Quarterback Kyle West didn’t get any text messages from his soon-to-be coaches, but he saw another example early that this experience under new coach Bill Clark was not going to be like anything he’d just been through with the previous staff.
That first day the players assembled back on campus they were summoned from the climate-controlled environs of the team room to the field where a long thick rope was spread before them.
“We’ve got kids in flip flops – it’s freezing cold outside,” West recalled. “He made the defense get on one side, the offense get on the other and then got the 10 best offensive players and the 10 best defensive players and had a tug-o-war.
“They’ve got phones in their pockets, wallets, jewelry on, sandals on. We’re like, ‘Oka-a-a-y.’ We’d have never done this (before). They didn’t really care; they just wanted us to go out and see us compete. It was a lot different.”
Players used to be able to wear hats in the field house and work out in their high school gear, too. Not anymore. No hats and everyone on is JSU stuff.
Consider it a complete attitude overhaul.
“The two things that are stressed are being mature and being disciplined,” Smith said. “Discipline is the No. 1 thing that really has changed — discipline and tempo. Do everything and quick. Think quickly and discipline yourself to be able to do this (task).”
Clark, hired in December after the firing of former coach Jack Crowe, said he expected some initial resistance to his approach, but the response has been “100 percent better” than he thought.
The Gamecocks have been on the field with him for about a week now and went through their first spring scrimmage Saturday. The differences were evident everywhere.
In the stands there was a good crowd, enhanced by more than 200 junior prospects from an estimated 50 high schools. It was even more lively on the field as both sides of the ball got to experience for the first time in a game-like atmosphere the next Clark innovation — a fast paced playing style.
It’s no so much throwing the ball all over the field as it is doing things quickly. Everybody on the sidelines was expected to be active, attentive and encouraging.
“With this offense you have no time to be lackadaisical,” freshman receiver Josh Barge said. “You always have to be on and if you’re not there are more people on the depth chart and, well, they’ll come in and pick it up for you.”
“Everyone’s starting to get used to it,” West said. “Our first practice, all our receivers were gassed; everybody was tired. Now, since we’ve been scrimmaging and really gotten used to it this past week, it’s really picked up a lot.”
“Once we get everything down pat, we’ll be a dangerous offense,” Barge predicted.
Smith said it will be good for the Gamecocks’ defense in the long run, too.
“People are going to try to throw a whole bunch of stuff at us and we’re going to be ready for anything,” he said.
For the first time in a game-like setting, the response was mixed.
The offense was limited by injury-related depth issues on the line and Steven Coates — the most experienced quarterback of the five in camp — was held out as a precaution after taking a hit on his arm during the week. Still, the first unit, under the direction of walk-on West, scored touchdowns on both its drives.
Meanwhile, the defense — Clark’s specialty — continued to make strides.
“That’s our first real scrimmage since we’ve been here; I liked how we handled it,” Clark said. “Like everybody would think, there’s just tons to work on … but I was pleased.
“I thought they handled the tempo well. Right now you’ve been doing all these fundamentals and that’s good, but then you want to translate it to the game and we got to do a little bit of that today.”
Barge looked particularly impressive. He caught two passes in each of the touchdown drives, including a 43-yarder to help set up the first score — an 8-yard toss from West to tight end Luke Smith.
Barge, who came to JSU hoping to be a two-sport athlete, didn’t play last year after injuring his knee during his senior high school track season. He was sure-handed on this day.
“I know I have to prove myself on this level; this isn’t high school anymore,” he said. “For me to come out here and do what I did today it probably was an eye-opener, but to me I feel like I’m not at my best right now, so I still have a lot of work to do and I know my coaches are going to help me get to the point where I need to be.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.