The combination of new coach Bill Clark’s all-spots-are-open approach to spring practice and the uncertain future of his most experienced quarterback has created a unique opportunity at the team’s most visible position.
With Coty Blanchard, the presumptive starter, spending another spring with the JSU baseball team, quarterback has been a wide-open affair. It’s not completely certain whether the Gamecocks are using the spring to groom a solid No. 2 to play behind Blanchard or to be their next starter in the event pro baseball keeps Blanchard from returning in the fall.
West said he has no idea what the future holds, but he’s doing all he can to be in the middle of it. He was running No. 1 before a hand to the head sidelined him the week before spring break.
“I’m just trying to go out and do my best every day and do what I can to help this team win, whether it’s scout team, backup signaler, the starter,” said West, a redshirt sophomore. “I’m just trying to play my role whatever it is and continue to get better and just learn everything every day.
“Why be negative? Don’t be pouting about it. It’s all about the team.”
Steven Coates, the next most experienced quarterback behind Blanchard and the star of last year’s spring game, started the spring out front, but hurt his arm shortly before the first scrimmage. That opened the door for West. West’s setback then opened the door for Eli Jenkins, who used his shot to impress as a runner. Freshmen Jayce Barber and Tyler Will also are in the mix.
West has been down this road before. When he first arrived at St. Augustine (Fla.) High, he was the backup quarterback on the freshman team, but the starting spot on the varsity was thrown wide open the next year by the graduation of a senior. He caught the eye of offensive coordinator Steve Hardin, impressed everyone with his poise and work ethic and wound up starting the next three years. He never lost a regular-season game.
In just his second varsity game he rallied his team from a 19-0 deficit with three touchdown passes and a 2-point conversion
“He was a kid who, when we started working with him, couldn’t throw a spiral ... but mechanically he was coached really good,” said Hardin, the father of former JSU quarterback Matt Hardin (2004-07). “I have a little confidence in my coaching and I knew if he stayed up on it he could be a player.
“He was a student of the game and a born winner. Everybody gets these impressions that you have to have a senior leader. He took it over as a 10th-grader. By the end of the season everybody had bought into him. When it came time to elect a captain there was no contest. We didn’t even do it; we knew he was going to be the guy.”
West had options to walk on at the alphabet schools in Florida — UCF, FAU, FIU — but chose Jacksonville State at the urging of former Gamecocks offensive coordinator Ronnie Letson after visiting with high school teammate Markis Merrill.
He brought that poise and work ethic with him. He’s always asking questions in meetings, constantly taking notes. He even picks up things from watching the best quarterbacks on TV and, of all things, playing Playstation.
“This generation,” Clark said. “I laugh about my son how much football he knows from playing the game. We don’t want it to be a thing that’s all they do ... but it’s amazing what kids know today just because things like that game are so well simulated. I find it interesting how football smart these kids are these days.”
West was strictly a scout-team player as a freshman, but last year spent his game days picking up opposing blitzes and signaling plays to the huddle.
The closest he came to getting in a game was last year at UT Martin when Marques Ivory rolled his ankle. He was technically the No. 2 that week with Blanchard out and Coates nursing a sore elbow.
“I’m like oh …,” West said. “I knew what I was doing, so that was cool. I’ve tried to learn since I’ve been here.
“I try to know my stuff so if something does happen I can come in and manage a game.”
Now he can see himself being the guy under center in the opener at Alabama State.
“I think I have enough confidence; I’ve been through it,” he said. “I had a rough spring game, but now … if something does happen — Coty doesn’t come back or I beat out someone — I think I can come in and win ballgames for this school.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.