It was what he’d been waiting months to do. He knew what was coming next and he seized the opportunity.
The true freshman from Anniston scored a touchdown the very first time he touched the ball in a college game and wound up as Jacksonville State’s leading rusher in the Gamecocks’ 49-24 loss at Arkansas.
“My first college experience was good,” Pope said after a couple of days to digest the day. “I was just very excited to get on the field. I was just waiting for my opportunity, and when I got it, I knew I’d have to perform. He got down, so I had to pick him up.”
After the game, head coach Jack Crowe called Pope a “right-now-win-the-game” type back he wouldn’t hesitate giving the load. That support will be tested in Saturday’s home opener against Chattanooga following Ealey’s arrest Wednesday morning on misdemeanor drug charges.
Ealey has been suspended for the game, leaving Pope and sophomore Damarcus James to handle the bulk of the rushing attack.
Pope wound up rushing for 65 yards on 14 carries against the Razorbacks and had a better per-carry average than the SEC’s leading rusher in 2010 suited up on the other side of the field. The first time Pope touched the ball, he took a swing pass from Marques Ivory and went 19 yards for the Gamecocks’ first touchdown of the season.
“I couldn’t quit just because (Ealey) was down,” Pope said. “When he got hurt, he came to me and said it’s my time now. He told me to step up and do what I have to do, work hard and play and don’t think about who they are. Imagine you’re out there playing with nothing on, no names, no Arkansas, no JSU. He told me there’s no difference in them and us. I just went out there and played.”
After Ealey come off the field, the Gamecocks’ offense was a series of plays alternated by Ivory passes and Coty Blanchard runs with a James run around the 10 to break the monotony. A bad lateral forced the Gamecocks into a second-and-goal at the Arkansas 19 and set up Buster’s break-out moment.
Ivory threw a pass toward the sideline and Pope did the rest.
“That was crazy; I loved it though,” Pope said of scoring on his first touch. “When I saw nobody out there, I knew I was going to beat the guy back inside, so I knew I had a touchdown. It was real exciting to score the first time I touched the ball.”
Pope got his first two college carries in the second quarter — a gain and a loss — and finished the half with zero net yards. He incurred his first turnover — and the wrath of coach Jack Crowe — when he lost a fumble in the third quarter
“I put the ball on the floor, that broke my heart,” he said shaking his head. “I was like, ‘Man, I messed up,’ but I couldn’t quit and be sad about it. I knew I had to go out there and play.”
The next time Buster touched the ball, he busted a 23-yard run. He broke off a 16-yarder on the next snap.
None of the success Pope enjoyed Saturday surprised his high school coach. Pope rushed for 2,539 yards and 31 touchdowns as a senior at Anniston — when he was Class 4A Back of the Year and third in the Mr. Football voting — and more than 4,500 yards and 60 touchdowns in Eddie Bullock’s two seasons as Anniston High’s coach.
“I told them when he got there, and I’ll tell anybody, he’s an SEC-type back, it’s just the fact everybody was so big on his (small) size, his height,” Bullock said. “It wasn’t his speed or his strength — he’s 5-8. But that 5-8 doesn’t measure his heart. That boy’s a worker. He’s going to do some big things for them up there if he stays healthy. I’m not surprised at all.
“He’s a coachable kid, but he has instincts you just don’t coach. You get him the football in space, he’s hard to tackle. What really is a hidden secret about him is people don’t realize he’s a combination of speed and strength. He’s quick, and then if he gets in the right situation, he’ll run over you because he’s strong. He squatted over 500 (pounds) and benched over 300, and that’s just what he was doing in high school. It’s scary to know what he’s doing now as far as lifting weights in a college program.”
Even though he has scored his first touchdown and had an award-winning debut, Pope isn’t satisfied. He said the first day of training camp, his first official day as a college football player, his goal was to set the Gamecocks’ freshman rushing record, He’s got nearly 1,200 yards to go.
“I haven’t reached my goals; I’m still working,” he said. “I’m trying to keep on toward my goals. That’s just a small portion of my goals.”
But it’s a start.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.