The Gamecocks put the finishing touches on spring practice with their annual J-Day game. The exercise will pit the first offense and second defense against second offense and first defense, but expect a lot of movement between sides to create competitive balance and complete units.
This spring practice has been all about developing young players in advance of what coach Jack Crowe called “the toughest anybody in the history of the OVC has faced” and there will be plenty getting a chance to make their case tonight.
“Make sure you get a program,” Crowe said. “You’re going to see a lot of young players who hadn’t played. That’s what spring training is about, bringing some no-names in the light enough for people to realize there’s a development process going on all the time. We lose these guys in 4, 5 years and we lost a bunch of really good ones last year. It’s sort of a who’s-next mindset and what you hope you have next meets the expectations.
“The game is the final evidence or representation for each one of those players to say what they need to say before we put a depth chart together. That depth chart will decide a lot of things. Some of the kids out there have to prove they’re worthy of being brought back. We bring back 95 and we always end up with 110 or 112 once we add the incoming freshmen, and this (spring) there’s just a lot of people who aren’t playing.”
The list of unheralded players to watch starts with the quarterbacks, and that opens the door for Steven Coates and walk-on Kyle West to shine.
Coates, whose development has been stuttered by a series of injuries, is projected as the quarterback of 2013 and 2014, but tonight he’ll have the ball with a chance to win the game with what’s considered the first offense. West is one of the players who needs to make a statement about his intentions to compete and Crowe said he has given “every indication” of being up for the challenge.
As for the regulars, Coty Blanchard is playing baseball and senior starter Marques Ivory, expected to pick up the pace after spring break, was shelved as soon as swelling developed in the ankle he broke in last year’s season opener.
“We got real conservative when he got some swelling in the ankles,” Crowe said. “Rather than run him out for work at the end of the spring … not that there’s major risk, but any risk that might set him back didn’t seem necessary and Steven Coates can get some work.”
That risk outweighs the reward when it comes to young corners Rashod Byers and Denzel Bynum, too. They were expected to get the longest looks this spring as the Gamecocks continue to establish their new defensive mindset under coordinator Chris Boone – and did early -- but their availability tonight is uncertain.
“There have been some nagging things for some of these guys, the amount of snaps is not worth the risk,” Crowe said. “They’re not 100 percent back and we could put them out at 80-85 percent and it could set them back more.”
That means there are chances for other players. Among those to watch are Adam Wright on a rebuilt offensive line, massive mid-year transfer tight end Gavin Ellis, defensive lineman Caleb Lawrence and Brent Tolson (Anniston) and Ben Endress (Clay County), linebackers in a virtual dead heat competing to replace Clarence Jackson.
“Every time you go on the field it’s an opportunity,” Crowe said. “As far as profiling our team with names of players who have created some (buzz), that’s not what this spring game truly is. There is some of it out there, but the reality is with these people who are missing, who’s going to be able to step up and show something.
““There are some scholarships at stake. There are some walk-ons close to earning scholarships and redistributing scholarships across the board. … There are some spring games you worry that you don’t get everybody enough snaps. I don’t think it’ll be the case in this one.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.