JACKSONVILLE, Ala. — Nearly a year to the day after he thought his season was over, Jacksonville State linebacker Marshall Clark smiles as he sits inside a suite overlooking Burgess-Snow Field on campus. The junior from nearby Munford, Alabama, shakes his head, still unsure how they pulled it off, navigating all the uncertainty of that summer, playing seasons in both the fall and the spring, and then somehow managing to reach the playoffs.
Somehow, like everyone else here, Clark has mustered the energy to be excited for what comes next. Mentally, he says, they’re ready.
On Wednesday, the Gamecocks, who compete in the FCS, will begin their third season in a 12-month period when they go on the road to Montgomery and play UAB (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App), which competes in the FBS and is coming off its second Conference USA title in three years.
But any conversation about the upcoming season requires looking back to the last. And to do that, Clark returns to a day last August when he thought they’d never make it to kickoff.
That morning, the team was practicing and the energy was great, he recalls. Guys were flying around, excited to start the season against Florida International. Then, out of nowhere, coach John Grass blew his whistle and everyone and everything stopped. Grass gathered the team around him and explained the situation: FIU had postponed the game. Practice was canceled. They could all go home.
Clark remembered how deflated players were as they sulked to the locker room.
“Our faces were a mile long,” he said. “It was like, ‘Man, we might not play at all.'”
Hours after FIU made its announcement, there was more bad news as NCAA president Mark Emmert said that all fall championships were canceled, meaning there would be no FCS playoffs. The following day, the Ohio Valley Conference nixed its fall season.
But the players were committed to this experiment of playing through a pandemic, for better or worse.
Two months earlier, veterans on the team had called a players-only meeting to get out ahead of the mess they all saw coming. They were frank as they spoke to one another: The virus is real, it will spread and we need to be united.
At one point, Clark said, they agreed, “If we’re gonna play, we’re all gonna play. And if we’re not, we’re just not going to.”
Only one player decided to opt out, and it wasn’t because he didn’t want to play. His mother recently had surgery for breast cancer and he needed to be home to help take care of her.
Everyone else was in agreement.
“Once we decided to play ball,” Clark said, “it was game on.”
Sure, they came to Jacksonville to compete for conference championships, not to play in a handful of non-conference games that really didn’t mean anything. But they weren’t going to hold out for the spring, hoping that the OVC would start back up then. Clark said that felt like a 50-50 proposition at best.
So a week later than originally planned, they got on buses and went on the road to begin their fall season at Florida State, a Power 5 program that was paying $400,000 for the pleasure of beating JSU. The Gamecocks came out on fire, though, and put a scare into the heavily favored Seminoles, leading at halftime before eventually running out of steam in the second half. The Gamecocks lost but bounced back to beat Mercer and North Alabama before capping off their fall schedule with a win at FIU.
They took only a couple of weeks off before they got back to work preparing for the spring season, which was only three months away.
JSU went 6-1 in the conference-only season, reaching the FCS playoffs. In Round 1, the Gamecocks beat Davidson 49-14.
Then, in the quarterfinals, they lost to Delaware 20-14.
The mood in the locker room after the loss was eerie. It was completely quiet, Clark recalled, as if it was sinking in that unlike the fall season, there wouldn’t be another extension to the never-ending season.
They would be starting over this time, without the benefit of a normal offseason to recover.
With 122 days until kickoff against UAB, they wouldn’t forget the feeling of coming up short.
“I think that’s why we’re OK right now,” Clark said, “because it’s time to go chase what we want to chase.”
Jacksonville State strength coach Gavin Hallford was serious.
Go home, he told players after the loss to Delaware. Get off your feet. Rest. Recover.
He knew there would be some who wouldn’t listen to what he was saying or what their bodies were trying to tell them. Young and naive, they’d head right back in the weight room.
“We finished playing on May 2 and they wanted to be here on May 3,” he said.
It was admirable, their drive, but it was ultimately counterproductive.
Some players had to be put on restrictions.
“We told some guys they weren’t allowed back until June,” Hallford said.
Tylan Grable, an All-American offensive lineman, almost lasted the full month without thinking about football. Playing in the trenches and taking countless hits, he needed the time away. So he went on vacation for the first time since before he was in high school, spending two weeks with his family in Florida at Cocoa Beach and in Panama City. He was able to recharge, he said.
Clark, who had been named to the All-Conference team, wasn’t nearly as patient. He drove around town on back roads. He tried going fishing. But mostly he was antsy. So two weeks into vacation, he went to his neighborhood gym to work out. And on June 1, he was right back on campus.
About 25 players were already there lifting with him at the time, Clark said. Two weeks went by and there were 50. Another two weeks went by and it was basically the entire team.
Hallford was surprised how quickly everyone bounced back. If it was him, he joked, he’d still be at home lying in bed.
He was careful, though. The normal offseason program of focusing on building strength was scaled back in order to reduce wear and tear. They’d do some conditioning, but not like what they’d experience during a typical summer.
Players like Clark and Grable say that fall camp has felt the same as it always has.
“We’re flying around,” Grable said. “The competition is good.”
JSU is ranked in the top 10 in the FCS. Basically the entire team is back from last year as players took advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA awarded to everyone because of COVID.
Grass, who is entering his eighth season as head coach, is cautiously optimistic. Like Hallford, he has been surprised by how quickly players have recovered.
“Kids are resilient,” he said.
But he can’t shake the knowledge that those same kids have basically gone two years without a normal offseason program. There are freshmen and sophomores that just haven’t been able to put on the weight needed to compete at this level.
“It has really held us back as far as developing players,” Grass said, “and we put a high premium on that. People take that for granted, but that’s what you get in the offseason.”
He added: “I worry about that more than I do anything else.”
And in the back of his mind, he wonders about the long-term impact of playing three seasons in such close order. Players haven’t experienced the rash of injuries you might expect, but Grass said, “Ask me again in three to four months.”
Overall, though, he has been pleased with his team. While one might argue that their short offseason is a disadvantage when compared to others who played only in the fall, there’s a counter-argument to be made as well.
For one, players enjoyed competing against actual opponents in games during the spring as opposed to practicing against one another endlessly.
For another, a lack of time away also meant there wasn’t the time to lose that competitive edge and forget certain lessons from the past 12 months.
Clark said they’re thankful that they’re entering this season without the cloud of speculation about whether they’ll play hanging over their heads. The pandemic hasn’t gone away, but they’re relishing something closer to normalcy.
It’s been fun, Clark said.
After coming up short in the playoffs, they’re anxious to get back and finish what they started.