The Jacksonville State football team has had a whirlwind schedule in the last three seasons and it’s all come down to this. After finishing with a 9-3 record, the Gamecocks will take on Eastern Michigan for the second time in as many weeks at 2 p.m. Saturday in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the quarterfinals of the Division I FCS playoffs.
JACKSONVILLE, Alabama (AP) — Jacksonville State linebacker Marshall Clark grins as he sits inside a suite overlooking Burgess-Snow Field on campus, almost a year after he believed his season was gone. The junior from neighboring Munford, Alabama, shakes his head, wondering how they did it, negotiating all the uncertainties of that summer, playing autumn and spring seasons, and then somehow making it to the playoffs.
Clark has summoned the energy to be enthusiastic about what lies ahead, just like the rest of us. They’re mentally prepared, he claims.
The Gamecocks, who play in the FCS, will open their third season in a 12-month span on Wednesday when they travel to Montgomery to face UAB (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App), which plays in the FBS and is coming off its second Conference USA championship in three years.
However, any discussion of the next season must begin with a review of the previous one. To do so, Clark travels back to August 2020, when he believed they’d never get it to kickoff.
The squad was training that morning, and the atmosphere was high, he remembers. Guys were flying about, pumped up to face Florida International in the first game of the season. Then, almost out of nowhere, coach John Grass sounded his whistle, and everything came to a halt. Grass rallied his teammates around him and explained the situation: the game had been postponed by FIU. The practice has been canceled. They might all return to their homes.
As they sulked their way to the locker room, Clark recalled how dejected the guys were.
He stated, “Our faces were a mile long.” “I was thinking, ‘Man, we may not be able to play at all.’”
Following FIU’s statement, NCAA president Mark Emmert said that all autumn championships will be canceled, thus eliminating the FCS playoffs. The Ohio Valley Conference canceled its autumn season the following day.
But, for better or worse, the players were committed to this experiment of playing during a pandemic.
Two months before, the team’s veterans convened a players-only meeting to prepare for the impending disaster. They were open and honest with one another, saying things like, “The virus is real, it will spread, and we need to be together.”
They decided at one time, according to Clark “We’ll all play if we’re going to play. And if we aren’t, we aren’t going to.”
Only one player chose not to participate, and it was not because he didn’t want to. His mother had just had breast cancer surgery, and he needed to stay at home to assist her.
Everyone else seemed to agree.
“It was game on once we chose to play ball,” Clark added.
Sure, they came to Jacksonville to compete for league titles rather than a handful of meaningless nonconference games. They weren’t going to wait until the spring to see whether the OVC would resume operations. At best, Clark said, it seemed like a 50-50 prospect.
So, a week later than anticipated, they boarded buses and headed out on the road to start their fall season against Florida State, a Power 5 school that was willing to spend $400,000 to defeat JSU. The Gamecocks, on the other hand, came out firing and gave the Seminoles a fright, leading at halftime before running out of steam in the second half. The Gamecocks lost their first game, but rebounded to defeat Mercer and North Alabama before finishing their fall season with a victory against FIU.
They barely took a few weeks vacation before returning to work to prepare for the next spring season, which was only three months away.
JSU finished the conference season with a 6-1 record and qualified for the FCS playoffs. The Gamecocks defeated Davidson 49-14 in the first round.
Then they fell 20-14 to Delaware in the quarterfinals.
After the defeat, the locker room was eerily quiet. It was absolutely silent, Clark remembered, as if it had finally dawned on him that, unlike the autumn season, the never-ending season would not be extended.
Without the luxury of a regular offseason to recuperate, the Gamecocks would have to start all over again.
They wouldn’t forget the sensation of coming up short with 122 days before kickoff versus UAB.
“I believe that’s why we’re doing well right now,” Clark said, “because it’s time to go for what we want.”
Gavin Hallford, the strength coach at Jacksonville State, was dead serious.
After the defeat against Delaware, he ordered his team to “go home.” Get your feet moving. Rest. Recover.
He expected some people to ignore what he was saying and what their bodies were attempting to tell them. They’d return to the weight room, young and naïve as they were.
He said, “We completed performing on May 2nd, and they wanted to be here on May 3rd.”
Each week, choose the winner of ten college football games. Play confidently or play straight up. Make your selections
Their determination was commendable, but it was ultimately detrimental.
Restriction has to be imposed on certain players.
“We informed a few of people they couldn’t come back until June,” Hallford said.
All-American offensive lineman Tylan Grable went nearly a month without thinking about football. He needed the break after spending so much time in the trenches and absorbing so many blows. So he had his first vacation since he was in high school, spending two weeks in Florida with his family at Cocoa Beach and Panama City. He said that he was able to recharge.
Clark, who was selected to the all-conference team, was not as patient. He took back routes surrounding town. He attempted to go fishing. But he was mainly restless. So, two weeks into his vacation, he went to the gym in his neighborhood to exercise. He was back on campus the next day, June 1.
Clark estimated that around 25 guys were already lifting with him at the time. After two weeks, there were 50. After another two weeks, it was pretty much the whole squad.
Hallford was taken aback by how fast everyone recovered. He joked that if it were him, he’d still be laying in bed at home.
But he was cautious. To minimize wear and tear, the usual offseason routine of concentrating on strength was cut down. Players would undertake some conditioning, but not in the same way that they would in a normal summer.
“It’s time to go pursue what we want to seek,” Jacksonville State linebacker Marshall Clark says after the Jaguars’ playoff loss to Delaware in the spring. Athletics at JSU
Fall camp, according to players like Clark and Grable, has been the same as it has always been.
“We’re in the air,” Grable said. “There’s a lot of competition.”
In the FCS, JSU is rated in the top ten. The whole squad is returning from last year, as players took advantage of the additional year of eligibility granted by the NCAA as a result of COVID-19.
Grass is cautiously hopeful as he enters his seventh season as head coach. He, like Hallford, has been taken aback by how fast players have bounced back.
He added, “Kids are resilient.”
But he can’t get beyond the fact that those same youngsters have gone two years without participating in a regular offseason program. Some freshmen and sophomores have struggled to gain the necessary weight to play at this level.
“”It’s definitely held us back in terms of developing players,” Grass added, “and that’s something we value highly.” That’s something people take for granted, but it’s what you receive in the offseason.”
“I worry about it more than anything else,” he said.
And, in the back of his mind, he considers the long-term consequences of playing three seasons in such a short period of time. “Ask me again in three to four months,” Grass remarked, referring to the lack of injuries among the players.
However, he has been happy with his squad as a whole. Although some may claim that the Tigers’ short offseason is a disadvantage when compared to teams who only play in the autumn, there is a counter-argument.
For one thing, rather than constantly training against one another, players loved fighting against real opponents in games throughout the spring.
For another, a lack of time away meant there was no time to lose one’s competitive edge or forget lessons learned over the previous year.
Clark expressed gratitude for the fact that they won’t have to worry about whether or not they’ll be able to play this season. The epidemic hasn’t ended, but they’re looking forward to a return to normality.
Clark said, “It’s been a lot of fun.”
They’re eager to come back and complete what they began after falling short in the playoffs.