Last year when the running back arrived at Jacksonville State, he wanted to set the JSU freshman rushing record. There were flashes it could happen, but injuries and a steep learning curve kept him from hitting the mark by a wide margin.
Still, it didn’t deter him from establishing new, higher goals for a new coaching staff.
All the former Anniston Star Player of the Year wants to do now is lead the FCS in rushing this season and become the greatest running back in the history of the division.
That’s a tall order. FCS football has produced running backs the likes of Walter Payton — for whom the FCS Offensive Player of the Year award is named — Brian Westbrook, Dave Meggett and Adrian Peterson (the one from Georgia Southern).
“My goal is always high. I’m always thinking big on myself,” Pope said. I’m not arrogant, just confident.
“I want to lead the FCS in rushing. When you mention me, I want to be named the best running back that’s ever played in the FCS.”
Pope made a big move at least on the first goal Saturday night when he led an FCS-record four 100-yard JSU rushers with a career-high 160 yards on 16 carries in the Gamecocks’ 48-13 rout of Jacksonville University. He had only 240 yards rushing in seven games last year, but after Saturday he’s only 20 yards short of that.
He is the Ohio Valley Conference’s second-leading rusher this week behind UT Martin senior D.J. McNeil — by one yard, on fewer carries — and ranked 18th in the FCS.
Gamecocks coach Bill Clark has no problem with Pope setting his personal bar high.
After all, a player has to say it before he can do it. But the coach also knows actions speak louder than words.
“Now, what we want to say is how do you accomplish those goals?” Clark said. “Come to work every day, do what you’re supposed to do, be the person you’re supposed to be.
“He had ability when he got to us, but are you working like that every day? We didn’t see that even in the spring. I told him that one out of three, you’re as good as we’ve ever seen; the other two I said we don’t know. I have no problem (with setting high goals), but I want to see the action backing it up and I’m starting to see that.”
Saturday night Pope was “close” to being the dominant back he was as senior at Anniston High School since he left there. That year, he rushed for 2,539 yards and 31 touchdowns.
JSU running backs coach Jimmy Ogle was all kinds of excited when Pope committed to the Gamecocks two years ago. He has overseen some of the best running backs in JSU history over the last 13 years and was “more than excited” about the job Pope and the other runners did against the Dolphins in their home opener.
In addition to Pope, the Gamecocks got 138 yards – all in the second half -- from Miles Jones, 128 yards from quarterback Eli Jenkins and 105 yards from DaMarcus James. It was the first time in FCS history a team had four 100-yard rushers in the same game.
Ogle called it an “amazing night, pretty special.” Clark even called him at home around midnight that night to congratulate him on the milestone.
“Something we talked about with Buster from Day One is how much talent he actually has,” Ogle said. “It’s been a work in progress. He knows he hasn’t arrived at some magical place. It takes consistent work and, quite honestly, if you went back and watched last week’s practice that’s what you saw on Saturday. That, to me, is a testament to him and his work ethic.
“I watched him as a high school player on film and you could see he was a very good player, then Anniston was here for a 7-on-7 right before his senior year and nobody tackled him. It was two-hand tag and nobody touched him. He can really do some special things out there. I think everyone who watched can see that; it’s not hard to pick out.”
Pope got off to an equally fast start last year before the injury bug bit. He led the Gamecocks in rushing at Arkansas, picking up 65 yards in his college debut. The next week against Chattanooga he ran for a season-high 100 yards on 12 carries. He hurt his left knee in the first quarter of the Eastern Kentucky game and was never the same.
The secret to Pope’s early-season success this year is he’s healthy and admittedly stronger than he has ever been. The strength part was evidenced on one of his three touchdowns Saturday when a JU defender had him by the shoulder pads and Pope dragged him several yards before breaking free and into the end zone.
“I feel a lot more physical than I was last year,” Pope said. “I can play how I want to now. I’m just ready to play and ready to show the world what I can do.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.