Sometimes it’s actually the truth.
Jermaine Hough had no reason to doubt the Jacksonville State coaches when they approached with the pitch to play right away. And now the true freshman cornerback is seeing it come to the ultimate fruition as he’s scheduled to draw his first career start Saturday when the Gamecocks play Southeast Missouri.
“It’s a great opportunity, I’m looking forward to it,” Hough said. “As they recruited me — I was a big recruit for them — they told me I’d get a chance to get some playing time and I somewhat believed it.
“They came to me way before my senior year — they hadn’t even seen my film — and told me how they had two seniors leaving out and were going to need some corners to come in and get ready to play. I believed them. I’d come to the games and see the corners. They rotated them a lot. They moved one from the offense. I was noticing that ... so I thought I’d have a great chance of playing.”
Hough is the latest in a litany of first- and second-year players being thrown into the barrel as the Gamecocks (1-2) seek answers for a struggling defense. They are last in the FCS this week in pass efficiency defense — giving up nine touchdowns with no interceptions — and are 106th in pass defense. It’s the deepest they’ve gone into a season without a pick since 2009, when they didn’t get their first until Game 5 — the day T.J. Heath picked three and returned two for touchdowns in the first 6:05 against UT Martin.
“We’ve just got to get better as a team,” Hough said. “I’m looking forward to making a couple of plays here and there. When I get my opportunity, I’ve got to make my plays.”
Hough already was on a fast track when the Gamecocks signed him, and now JSU head coach Jack Crowe said the time has come for last season’s Georgia AAAA Defensive Player of the Year “to show up and play with his competitiveness.” But even Hough said his starting shot has come faster than he thought.
He has played in all three games this season, recording five tackles and breaking up a pass on a jump ball at the goal line in Saturday’s loss at Eastern Kentucky. He moved in front of sophomore Denzel Bynum this week. Rashod Byers has started all three games at the other corner.
“It is kind of fast,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be that fast. I kind of had some idea I’d get some playing time, but we had a senior corner (Francis Duncan) and a good depth chart. I didn’t know I’d end up starting my freshman year.”
There was no pomp surrounding the announcement. Cornerbacks coach Brandon Cooper simply walked past the 5-foot-9 freshman in Monday’s unit meeting and whispered in his ear to start getting his mind right because he was going to start against the Redhawks (2-2). Then Cooper explained the move to the rest of the group a few minutes later. There was no resistence.
“He was a guy we went after really early,” Crowe sad. “We felt like he was going to be a difference maker as a freshman.
“He’s a real savvy kind of guy. He’s got some maturity about him. He’s learning on the job, so to speak, but he learns fast. He gives us every indication that he’ll learn fast and with his mistakes will be consistent improvement. We’re not getting that from other folks.”
Don’t think Hough is just the next body in line to insert in the lineup — he’ll be the third starter at that spot this season — to see if it sticks. The coaches have been impressed with his consistency and have had him as their first choice in nickel and dime packages. When he went against Arkansas’ athletic 6-foot-4 quarterback-turned-receiver Brandon Mitchell in the opener and didn’t flinch, it let Cooper know he was ready to play.
“He earned it outright,” Cooper said. “He’s a guy who comes in each and every day prepared to take somebody’s job. First we had a small role for him and it’s grown each and every day because he’s doing everything right he’s asked.
“Whoever is the most consistent and makes the most plays is the one who gets the start. In three weeks he’s done that. He hasn’t done anything to get him beat with his play. We’re going to play guys who are smart and consistent.”
None of that — getting the start or the consistency of effort — surprised Hough’s high school coach.
Lovejoy coach Al Hughes, a 1977 JSU grad, likened Hough to LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu, calling him “the main cog” to one of the best high school defenses in Georgia. The Wildcats had eight shutouts in 15 games last season and would’ve had 11, Hughes said, if the offense hadn’t thrown pick-sixes in three games. They gave up only one touchdown pass all season — and that came on a play right after Junior left the field. Hough had eight interceptions and was tenacious in run support.
“He was our ‘Honey Badger,’” Hughes said Wednesday. “Every SEC school in the nation should be kicking themselves in the rear for not listening to us.
“He’s not as big as a minute, but neither was the Honey Badger at LSU and he was in line for a Heisman Trophy bid. If they gave the Heisman in high school, I’m pretty sure Junior Hough would have been in line. He was that kind of football player.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.