Each time a player looks at the seconds ticking down to the first day of spring practice March 4, he will see a picture of the national championship trophy and the word “finish” alongside it.
Clark is hoping that image burns deep into their psyche.
The Gamecocks made it all the way to the FCS quarterfinals this past season before the end of the road came on the red turf of Eastern Washington. The run was greater than any JSU team had enjoyed as a Division I program, but left the Gamecocks three wins short of a national championship and with a significant sense of unfinished business.
“If your goal is to win the conference and make the playoffs, that’s what you’ll get,” Clark said Monday. “If it’s win the conference and the national championship, that’s what we hope to get. We’re going to say it and say it and say it and believe it.
“We want to be conference champions and we want to be national champions. We want to do better (than last year) and they should, too. It’s like that taste of something good to eat. It’s just a taste; we want more of it.”
Clark sensed that drive when he addressed “our full contingent” of players at his welcome-back team meeting Sunday, and again in the seniors-only confab that followed.
He told the players he wouldn’t make them pull a rope at midfield like he did last year to establish a sense of team, but he didn’t really have to. After a full year in Clark’s program, they know the competition, what’s expected and who they open the season against (Michigan State).
They were in the weight room at 7:30 Monday morning ready to get it started.
Even though it was early and cold, the room was hot.
“I haven’t been on a team with this much hype and intensity going into the offseason since my junior year of high school when we won a state championship,” junior quarterback Max Shortell said. “Late in the playoffs we had a little swagger about us and started playing off that, and it was visible.
“Going to the offseason we have that swagger and intensity. We’ve had one workout day and the intensity was one of the best I’ve been part of. It’s going to be a fun offseason. This year we feel like we’ve really got a shot. We know what we’re capable of now. Everybody knows how good we can be.”
The key to the Gamecocks’ success in 2014 will be the chemistry this group of players bring together.
Among the newcomers in Sunday’s meeting were SEC transfers LaMichael Fanning (Alabama) and Christian LeMay (Georgia). Shaquille Fluker, a defensive back from Georgia, is committed but was still on the way.
All three left their previous teams looking for a chance to play and all are expected to be difference makers with the Gamecocks.
Fanning has been interested in coming to JSU for a while, but received his release from Alabama only recently. Most fans will remember him suplexing Missouri running back Russell Hansbrough in 2012. Tide coach Nick Saban didn’t take kindly to the tackle and made Fanning write letters of apology to Hansbrough and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, but the play was a YouTube sensation.
“Any time you get a size and speed athlete on the defensive line, it’s a huge deal,” Clark said. “We’ve got high expectations for him. The good thing for him is we have most of the defensive line back. He just adds to what I think is a group that has a lot of potential and he has a lot of potential. Athletically, he’s probably as good as you could see.”
Despite being one of the nation’s top prep quarterbacks, LeMay never latched on with the Bulldogs. He played in five games in 2012, all in mop-up duty, throwing two passes and rushing for 67 yards. He didn’t play in 2013, but his skill set fits well in the Gamecocks’ plan.
“He fits the mold of the guy we want, which is an athletic thrower,” Clark said. “”I think he adds to what we’ve already got.”
And they’ve got a lot at quarterback.
With LeMay, Shortell, returning starter Eli Jenkins and two others, it will be a crowded depth chart this spring — and more are expected in the signing class — and all will have to earn their keep. If anything, it’ll make for an interesting spring game April 11.
“He’s in the mix,” Clark said of LeMay. “We proved this year we’ll play all of them; he’ll have his opportunity. Just because those other guys played this year doesn’t mean he (LeMay) won’t, but just because he has good pedigree doesn’t mean he won’t have to compete.”
Shortell is looking forward to it. The Minnesota transfer was the All-OVC second team quarterback despite missing four regular-season games with various injuries and said he’s “almost there” in terms of being full strength.
He was overtaken by Jenkins as the starter late in the season, but returned late in the first half of the Eastern Washington game when Jenkins twisted his knee. He passed for 173 yards that day, but the Eagles intercepted him twice, returning the second one for a touchdown that sealed the game.
“I embrace competition wherever I go,” Shortell said. “Anytime there’s competition it just raises all our play to the next level. I’m looking forward to it. I expect to have a pretty good spring.”
JSU finishes strong in polls
Jacksonville State’s best season as a Division I program produced its best finish in the FCS polls.
The Gamecocks were No. 10 in The Sports Network Top 25 and No. 12 in the FCS Coaches Poll when the final rankings of the season were released Monday.
The top 10 finish in the TSN poll was their best-ever in that final poll and the No. 12 ranking tied with the 2010 team for their best finish in that poll.
The Gamecocks were 11-4 and reached the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. They set 49 school records, 13 Ohio Valley Conference records and three NCAA marks during the season. Kicker Griffin Thomas and running back DaMarcus James both were record-setting All-Americans.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.