The offense and defense collected in various locations around the Salls Hall practice field before gathering for a spirited close that included the first live looks of Georgia transfer Washaun Ealey in JSU gear some two hours later.
It’s a routine they’ve followed so many years before, but this time there was something intrinsically different about it.
In previous years, the reward that awaited at the end of training camp was a team from the ACC or SEC that — pre-Ole Miss 2010 — the Gamecocks typically weren’t going to beat or a one-time foe that didn’t have much bearing when it was over.
This time, however, the game at the end of the tunnel is against an Ohio Valley Conference opponent — UT Martin — the Gamecocks absolutely must beat so not to get off schedule for a conference title for which they are favored.
“That’s what the general feeling is,” nose guard DiMetrio Tyson said. “Because it’s a conference game, if you lose this one, you have to play catch-up the whole time; nobody wants to do that.
“This game is more important than playing Ole Miss or any kind of school like that because you lose this game, it affects your ranking, your playoff status and your conference standings. This is a must win. Every game is a must win, but you want to start off on a high note.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s a higher urgency,” quarterback Marques Ivory added, “but it’s a league game and if we lose that game we’re 0-1 for the league. If you lose one, you might not win it.”
It’s the first time since 1979 JSU has kicked off the season against a conference opponent. Over the last six years, the Gamecocks have opened against Ole Miss, Georgia Tech (twice), Alabama State and Furman (twice), meaning the camp focus had to be split between their own internal development and a one-time opponent.
Now, they can devote their energies full-bore to developing principles that will carry them throughout the season and that “makes our August a better August,” Crowe said.
“When you open with an SEC school or Georgia Tech,” he said, “your whole mindset is about the first game and you tend not to focus on yourself but on some dimension of how (the first opponent) handles this, this and this, and that permeates everything.
“Opening against UT Martin, I promise you, we’re going to focus on them, but we’re going to really focus on us. … I think it’s great. I think it creates an urgency. I think it creates a focus, which is on us first. I expect it to be the best August we’ve ever had.”
It would be a mistake, however, to think the entire training camp will be devoted to UT Martin.
The Gamecocks likely will start putting in Martin stuff around the Aug. 20 Fan Day scrimmage. And it’s also helpful along the way that Martin employs the same two-back philosophy the Gamecocks want to espouse.
Having a veteran team also helps reduce time otherwise devoted to bringing younger players up to speed. If appearances matter, although there wasn’t a lot to see in Friday’s first day in shorts and helmets, at first blush Crowe called his 94 on the field “the best looking team” of the 12 he’s had at JSU.
Last year, the Gamecocks started working on Ole Miss about two weeks out from the game. They won it 49-48 to ignite an 8-0 start that had them on the verge of being the No. 1 team in the country.
“In past years, the whole camp was based on beating the first team, but this year you have to beat the first team; it’s almost you’ve got to,” defensive end Jamison Wadley said. “You go into every game to win, but this year there’s much more of an emphasis on winning because it’s a conference game.
“You lose it, you’re going to be one down to start off the year in the conference and being one down to start off the year keeps a long road for us.”
There’s a different dynamic over at Martin. The Skyhawks are open the week after they play JSU.
Skyhawks coach Jason Simpson, a former JSU assistant, said his team likely wouldn’t start turning its attention to the Gamecocks until its 20th practice of camp “because there are so many things you’ve got to do to get better as a team before you start looking at their formations and defenses and things like that.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.