A couple of minutes later, a staff member made his way toward them, apologized and politely told them practice was closed – even though one of the students was the girlfriend of one of the players.
JSU coach Bill Clark is serious about keeping a lid on what goes on in practice.
There’s only one first game, and Clark will have his Aug. 31 when the Gamecocks play Alabama State at Montgomery.
A former defensive coordinator at South Alabama, Clark has not served as a college head coach until coming to JSU in December. His offensive coordinator (John Grass) and defensive coordinator (Duwan Walker) haven’t led an offense or defense in college.
That gives JSU a certain amount of mystery, and Clark realizes the benefit in exploiting that advantage.
“Other teams don’t know what we’re going to do,” Clark said, “and we don’t want to give them any help.”
Clark won’t even reveal who is starting quarterback will be, joking that if fans want to know the answer, they’ll need to buy a ticket and see who takes the field for the opening series.
“It would be one thing if you had one guy who’s at this level (holding his hand high) and the rest were down here (holding his hand low), but we’ve got several guys right together,” Clark said.
Still, the thought of keeping secrets is a consistent theme for JSU.
The fences at Salls Field, where the Gamecocks works out when they aren’t at the stadium, are covered in tarp. There are signs placed on the field reminding potential onlookers that practice is closed.
Clark said he has mentioned to the players not to reveal too much while talking to family and friends about practice. One choice nugget passed on to a friend could be posted online, then wind up on the computer screen of an opposing coach.
“No doubt, we’ve told them (not to say much),” Clark said. “Family things stay in the family.”
Starting center Max Holcombe smiled about how his father, former Alabama offensive lineman Danny Holcombe, “asks every day” who the starting quarterback is going to be. Max said he isn’t saying, even though it’s dad.
“Everything is new, and there’s an element of surprise,” Max Holcombe said. “People know that we’ll be up-tempo, but they don’t know how we’ll do it.”
Holcombe won’t even give a hint who will be the quarterback: “I have full faith in everyone who sits back there and receives the snap.”
There are more mysteries to protect besides the starting quarterback. For example, foes also won’t know exactly how JSU will line up to protect a punt or block a punt. Opposing teams won’t know exactly how the defense will stack up, although Clark said coaches usually have tendencies in what they like to do. Opposing teams likely are digging up film of South Alabama’s defense to get an idea of Clark’s tendencies.
Barry Stafford, a senior defensive lineman, said the coaches have taken care of the idea of protecting the mysteries. He added the players simply practice and leave all that to them.
“We try not to give away anything,” he said.
Clark said keeping the door shut tight on what JSU might do in the opener isn’t just a one-time thing. He added that next year, he likely will maintain this level of secrecy because JSU naturally will make some changes to its offense and defense, as most teams do. Why give away what those changes might be?
Also, keeping tarp over the fence at practice means not only that people can’t watch the workout, but the players are less likely to be distracted by something going on outside.
“We’re big on no distractions. We’ve got 120-something players and staff,” he said. “It’s easy for somebody to let their mind wander.”
So for any JSU fans who wish they could get a better look at preseason practice, Clark said they should understand the secrecy helps their team: “It’s good business.”