An estimated 4,000 fans got a taste of the Gamecocks’ new frenetic, fan-friendly pace.
Clark’s first spring game also gave occasion for sophomore quarterback Eli Jenkins to show he can throw a pretty ball, in the pocket and on the run, and the defense backed up its turnover breakthrough in the prior scrimmage with seven more.
When the game ended, JSU players from the Red and White teams huddled then ran to pockets of fans in JSU Stadium.
J-Day was everything a new coach could want it to be and relevant in its way. It was as relevant as any watered-down intrasquad game for public consumption could be.
At best, J-Day was half as relevant as the melding of a new coaching staff and players that took place through 15 spring practices and an offseason program before them.
That bonding is the thing that most needed to happen between Clark’s December hiring and J-Day, and indications are it happened well ahead of schedule.
“It’s a very close bond,” said junior wide receiver/kick returner Gabriel Chambers, a former Cherokee County star. “It’s players and coaches, and they’re making sure you understand everything, and they’re going to love you either way.
“You mess up, they’re going to love you on and off the field.”
It started well before spring practice, in the weight room. Clark made getting a stronger a point of emphasis, and it’s evident in Anniston running back Troymaine Pope’s thicker arms.
Clark made the point that he wanted a strength upgrade the way he makes most points — hands on.
“It’s a whole lot different from last year,” senior linebacker Rashad Smith said. “They’re in the weight room with us. They’re counting every rep we do, and we didn’t have that last year.”
The hands-on approach carries onto the practice field. Defensive players feel the change the most because Clark’s background is on defense, but offensive players feel it too.
“It’s a different feel,” said Pope, a rising sophomore and J-Day’s leading rusher with 61 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown. “They’re more into it. They focus on the small details.
“They’re coaching every minute, every second at practice. They’re just teaching us the little details about everything, and it’s like we’re learning a little bit more than we usually do.
“It’s just a better environment, more discipline and all of that.”
Combine that all with a faster tempo, not just in the no-huddle offense but in practice. Clark wants to squeeze as many reps as possible into practice so that more down-depth chart guys get chances.
The idea is to make more players feel involved, but the expectation is the same for all.
“Everything we do is up-tempo,” Smith said. “We’re more focused on the little things. It’s more disciplined. If you mess up, it really could cost you.
“Five points was the difference between us and the playoffs last year.”
Clark has wrapped everything in an overall, family-oriented big picture. He talks of making players feel loved — even in a tough way.
“We’re all coming together,” Pope said. “They’re just helping us come together as a family. We used to just hang out with certain people. Now, we’re hanging out with the whole team.”
Clark called the level of buy-in through the winter program and spring practice “probably the thing that I’ve been most excited about.”
“These guys have embraced our staff,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ve done a good job of making them know that we truly care about them, that it’s a big family, and we want them to be better students and people.
“I told them when we got here, ‘You’ve done some good things and won games. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re just trying to go from good to great,’ but they’ve really bought in.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.