JACKSONVILLE â€" The first season of the Bill Clark era of Jacksonville State football officially gets underway on Thursday, when the Gamecocks' 95-man roster reports and begins working toward its Aug. 31 opener at Alabama State.
The players will move in on Thursday and participate in JSU's annual Media Day before taking to the practice field for the first time on Friday. The Gamecocks will work in helmets and shells for the first four days before putting on full pads for Tuesday's practice. All preseason workouts will be closed.
Clark, a 1990 graduate of JSU and the 13th head coach in the modern era of Gamecock football, was hired to lead the program on Dec. 18 and feels the hard work of his staff and players has the Gamecocks ready for the start of practice.
"It's here," Clark said at last week's Ohio Valley Conference Media Day. "There's a lot of hard work and a lot of different things that go into getting this thing ready. It's been a whirlwind (since we got here in December) of getting things done, going through spring and going back to recruiting and meeting players. We've done a lot of traveling camps this summer.
"It's really been better than expected," Clark said of the transition phase since his arrival. "But every day, we say 'What's going on today?' Everyday is a new day and we want to win that day. Attitudes, effort, all of the things you want to see from them have been good. We have been pleased up to this point."
Clark and his staff inherited a program that has had 10-straight winning seasons but won just one conference title since 2004. The Gamecocks are picked fourth in the preseason OVC polls with new systems to be installed on both sides of the ball, but Clark believes time will be the ultimate judge on just how much success his Gamecocks will enjoy in 2013.
"I think the players have a grasp on the new systems, but I think that's going to be a work in progress," Clark added. "As I said when I got here, no senior wants to hear that we are waiting and working towards the future. We want to win now and we want to do it right now, yet we know that some things will just get better with time."
JSU will be looking for a starting quarterback entering fall practice, but included in the Gamecocks' group of returning offensive players is Preseason All-OVC running back DaMarcus James and Preseason All-OVC lineman Tarik Milner. James ran for 867 yards and six touchdowns despite missing two games as a sophomore in 2012. Milner is part of an experienced offensive front that also returns starters Max Holcombe and Blake Burks.
On the defensive side of the ball,Â JSU returns its top seven tacklers from last year, a group led by senior linebacker Rashad Smith (89 tackles in 2012) and junior linebacker Ben Endress (85 tackles in 2012).
"These guys have been working since January," Clark said. "They've gone through a spring training, so the neat deal for them is that it's here now. As a football player, you play for the games and now those games are almost here. The part that's the hardest for the coaches is the most fun for the players."
The Gamecocks have six home games in 2013, beginning with a 6 p.m. matchup vs. Jacksonville University on Sept. 7. Season tickets and tickets to the Alabama State game are available online at www.jsugamecocksports.com.