Bill Clark thinks he’s starting to see one develop – and it’s around the defense and special teams – but it’s still a work in progress.
The Gamecocks are 3-0 going into their final non-conference game of the season – Saturday at winless Georgia State (0-3) — but there has been a little bit of everything that’s made it happen and not a lot of anything to deliver a true sense of this is who they are.
In the opener against an FCS opponent, they needed a quarterback off the bench to jump-start a sluggish offense and a defense rising to the occasion in the fourth quarter to save the game.
The next week, against a non-scholarship FCS team, it was the backup quarterback again — this time, the opening-day starter — that sparked an historic ground attack.
Last week, the defense and special teams — specifically the strong leg of Griffin Thomas — led them to a double-overtime win over a Division II foe. The only touchdown the Gamecocks scored came on a trick play early in the game.
Georgia State coach Trent Miles disputes the notion the Gamecocks don’t have an identity. He looks at things from a defensive perspective first and said JSU has a lot of the right stuff there. The Gamecocks may give up more than 400 yards a game, but they rank 23rd nationally in scoring defense.
“I see a team that has a lot of speed, a lot of ability,” Miles said. “I look at their linebackers -- they can fly. They’ve got some really good defensive linemen. The safeties are good-looking guys who run very well. They’re a very good, talented FCS football team that will be in the battle for the OVC title.”
Clark was appreciative of that. The defense was one of the first areas he needed to fix once he arrived in December.
“That’s a huge compliment to me because we started with that,” he said. “We said we were going to try to be really good defensively. That’s a huge work in progress for us, but it started with … fundamentals I didn’t see when we got here -- a mindset.
“Hopefully, that’s one identity you can say: When (JSU) comes to play, they’re going to have a good defense, they’re going to play hard, they’re going to be sound, they’re going to get lined up and if you come out and show them something different hopefully we’ll make good adjustments on the sideline. I think we’re seeing that.”
The special teams also have been delivering. Hamish MacInnes’ punting has been strong and long, as the Gamecocks are 20th nationally in net punting. Thomas has hit 8 of 9 field goal attempts and the only one he missed – a 50-yarder – was blocked. They had a couple nice kickoff return last week.
“Special teams does not need to be lip service,” Clark said. “People talk about PAT/field goal, but we invest five minutes of practice every day. We make a big deal out of it. That’s another thing I want us to be known for.”
As for the offense, meanwhile, he is confident it will come around. A week after making FCS history with four 100-yard rushers in the same game, the Gamecocks had 159 rushing yards against North Alabama, with quarterback Eli Jenkins’ 78 the team high. It didn’t help they lost DaMarcus James early to an ankle injury to they were bogged down by penalties.
“I know we’re going to be good offensively. I know that’s going to happen,” Clark said. “Hopefully, those other two can be a constant.
“With all those negatives from a penalty standpoint (against UNA), we didn’t turn it out, and I thought we were sound on defense and good in the kicking game, so, hopefully, that’s kind of who we get to be known as.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577