Make your plays.
The Gamecocks open their 109th season of football Saturday against an Arkansas team ranked No. 10 in both major preseason polls and bent on vying for the national championship. The Razorbacks return eight starters from an offense that led the Southeastern Conference in total offense, passing and scoring, and have a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback and a potential candidate at running back.
It’s a tough assignment for even the most veteran of defenses. JSU will meet it with a defense whose two-deep has 12 freshmen or sophomores, five players who’ve never played a snap for the Gamecocks before, an average of 12.2 games experience, seven starters with fewer than five career starts and three players making their first college starts — linebacker Ben Endress, defensive end Mikel Whittier and nose Caleb Lawrence. It’s actually four first-time defensive starters when you consider both of sophomore cornerback Rashod Byers’ starts last year were at running back.
Defensive coordinator Chris Boone called it “the ultimate test” for his charges who are so collectively young they’ve spent most of training camp just working on grasping the basics.
Crowe, meanwhile, has one expectation once they get turned loose.
“I expect them to make their plays,” he said Monday. “Everybody on defense has a blocker assigned to them, so what I expect them to do is be in position (and) when the opportunity to make your play is presented just make your play.
“We are going to play a lot of people who have never played before, (but) I’m not putting anybody out there who I don’t think can’t make the plays, because we’re going there to play as good as we can play. … Everybody has a beginning place and what it starts with is you just play with great effort and do your job, and that’ll take you a long way.”
The youth movement isn’t confined to the defense, but it’s accentuated there. Two true freshmen are penciled into the two-deep on offense — running back Troymaine Pope of Anniston and receiver Telvin Brown, a late replacement for injured senior Trey Smith.
The Gamecocks, ranked No. 22 in one of the two major FCS polls, aren’t devoid of experience on defense. The unit’s three senior starters — defensive tackle DiMetrio Tyson, outside linebacker Brooks Robinson and cornerback Francis Duncan — have a combined 83 games and 24 starts, and senior backup strong safety Keggie Harris has more career starts (17) than sophomore starter Pierre Warren has games played.
All the projected first-time defensive starters have drawn their assignments because, Crowe said, “they’re the best we’ve got at their position.”
And it’s not like they haven’t played.
Endress, a former walk-on from Ashland, fought through an early foot injury to play 10 games with 17 tackles and an interception; he nosed out junior Brent Tolson of Anniston for this weekend’s projected start.
Lawrence played nine games with five tackles and a sack, and is best remembered for running the length of the field chasing down DaMarcus James in the spring game. The 6-foot, 270-pounder is starting over freshman Adam Wright, who was moved from offense in last week’s position shuffle.
Whittier played three games at linebacker, but is playing with his hand on the ground this year. His backup is sophomore Sean Watson, who transferred from Baylor last year but didn’t play.
“Those three guys all played a bunch last year so it’s not going to be a shock to them (playing at Arkansas),” Boone said. “We’ve got a lot of players like that; that’s just the way it is. We’ve got guys who’ve played in games who just hadn’t got a lot of starts in them.”
Understandably, all three said they were excited about making their first collegiate starts and aren’t fazed by the stage or opponent. To a man they said after the first hit it’s still just comes down to playing football.
“It’s just been my dream to come play college football,” Lawrence said. “To be named a starter, being the first man to go out on the field at my position ... it’s huge. I just feel like I’m going to be ready for the challenge that’s ahead of us.”
And it’s a stout one. Razorbacks quarterback Tyler Wilson passed for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns in an All-SEC season a year ago, then skipped the NFL draft to try and win the SEC and national championship. Running back Knile Davis also returns after missing last season with a broken ankle he suffered last August; he led all SEC running backs with 1,322 rushing yards in 2010.
Wilson said at Arkansas’ press conference Monday the Razorbacks were ready to exploit the Gamecocks’ youth on defense.
“This is a statement game for us,” he was quoted as saying. “We’re going to put on a show.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.