It was no secret the JSU defense needed a lot of work when new coach Bill Clark and his staff took over in January. Good thing it’s the area nearest and dearest to Clark’s heart.
On Saturday, the defense moved forward with three takeaways, including one that created the day’s most teachable moment.
“I thought our defense played better today, which was huge,” Clark said. “We challenged them. I say all the time defense is really tough to play now. All football is a challenge, but defense … they’ve got to fight through things, they’ve got to be tough, and we started seeing some of that. I was proud of that.”
The Gamecocks were ranked 105th in the Football Championship Subdivision in total defense a year. They were 103rd against the pass, 99th in scoring defense and 90th against the run.
They also were 93rd in turnover margin, so the takeaways they got Saturday were a good sign — if not for the offense.
JSU had had only nine picks and five fumble recoveries a year ago. Only 14 teams in the FCS had fewer takeaways. The Gamecocks had 17 interceptions alone the season before.
“We make a huge point about it,” Clark said. “That’s one thing I’ve always done defensively; we’ve studied it, the percentages. The team that wins the turnover battle most of the time (wins the game). Look at all the Super Bowls. Most of them were won by the team that won the turnover battle.
“Our job defensively is to get the ball back. We say taking away the ball is different than a turnover. A turnover is a gift. A takeaway you took it from them; that’s why we work so much stripping the ball, scoop and score. Let’s be aggressive and score on defense.”
The Gamecocks’ defense was that Saturday. It was quite physical defending a series of plays in the two-minute drill late in the scrimmage, with several of the hits drawing audible responses from the crowd, many of which were awaiting the flag football game between former players.
Pierre Warren had both of the day’s interceptions, while freshman linebacker Blake Glaze scooped a fumble and took it in.
“The first scrimmage I don’t think we that many (takeaways),” Warren said, “but I guess after spring break everybody got refocused and we wanted to come out and put on a show for everybody.”
Glaze certainly got a rise out of the coaching staff.
After doing everything right on his big play and experiencing what he called “probably one of the greatest feelings I’ve had” in his short JSU career by scoring, Glaze punctuated his return with a head-long dive into the end zone. Not such a good thing.
Clark raced right over, pointedly explained to Glaze his error and had the player do some calisthenics in the far corner of the end zone to drive the point home. It could have ended there, but the head coach turned what could have been an ugly breach of discipline into a truly teachable moment.
He called the defense together, made his point again, then showed Glaze some love and sent him back to the huddle.
“People don’t always understand,” Clark said. “(It’s like) that coach just enjoyed getting on that guy. Well, no, that’s not it. We needed everybody to see.
“As soon as we were done I brought him back over, now you’ve learned your lesson. That’s the key. We love you, but that’s that stuff you see on TV that gets somebody beat. You did exactly what you were supposed to do (on the play) and then you messed it up and went from the hero to the goat. We called over the defense. Do you understand? Yes, we see. Truly, a teachable moment.”
Glaze didn’t want to talk about the dive, but it’s doubtful he’ll do it again.
“We’ve come a long way; every day we keep improving and improving,” he said. “We’re just doing what coach Clark and the rest of the defensive coaches want us to be doing and we’re going to do it to the fullest. And we’re going to do it right and we’re going to do it right every time.”
If the Gamecocks continue to be a team that forces a lot of turnovers — minus the extra-curriculars, of course — Warren insists “the sky’s the limit” this season.
“Last year the numbers were down,” he said. “This year I feel we will have more opportunities, be in position more to make better plays — and that’s everybody on the whole defense.”
The scrimmage was intended to get the Gamecocks closer to a working two-deep going into Friday night’s J-Day Game.
That determination won’t be complete, of course, until the coaches review the film on Saturday’s exercise, but Clark didn’t dispute the quarterback spot for spring is shaping up to be Kyle West and Eli Jenkins 1-2. West has shown to be a deft passer and Jenkins has shown poise as a runner.
Steven Coates, the star of last year’s spring game and the most experienced quarterback in camp, has been limited since hurting his arm in the run up to the scrimmage before spring break.
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.