Jacksonville State opens its first preseason camp under Clark tonight without an established quarterback to run its anticipated up-tempo spread offense.
The Gamecocks have five contenders for the job — four of whom were with the team in the spring and a fifth who has the most game experience — but only one has thrown a pass in a real game in a JSU uniform.
Redshirt sophomore Kyle West, redshirt freshman Eli Jenkins, freshman Jayce Barber and junior Steven Coates all went through some portion of spring practice. Minnesota transfer Max Shortell arrived in June and participated in off-season workouts.
The season opener is Aug. 31 at Alabama State. The clock is ticking.
"We've got to do a great job evaluating," Clark said Thursday during the team's preseason Media Day. "We will chart every throw, every snap, every rep, and then you've got to do a good job in practice giving those guys as many meaningful situational reps that you can evaluate.
"You're going to see us with two quarterbacks who play. ... Your druthers would be by the second week you've made a decision. I don't know that'd be the case, but that'll sure be the goal."
The Gamecocks presented Shortell, Jenkins and West to the media Thursday. All three said they were looking forward to the competition, which offensive coordinator John Grass called "an equal deal going in."
Shortell may have the perceived edge, having played in 15 games for the Golden Gophers the previous two years (eight starts), but the JSU coaches haven't seen him in pads so they wouldn't give him the nod. His big arm accounted for 1,162 yards and eight touchdowns at Minnesota, but he's not taking nothing for granted.
"We all came here to play, and that's what's tough about the quarterback position: Only one person gets most of the reps," he said. "We're going into camp all neck and neck. I wouldn't be telling the truth if I didn't expect myself to come out on top, but that's what camp is for — we'll get a chance to show our stuff and see who the best quarterback will be."
Coates, brilliant in the 2012 spring game but throwing only three passes in the two real games he's played, might have been the starter coming out of the spring if he hadn't sustained another injury. He was the No. 1 early, but was overtaken by the consistent West after he got hurt. West also missed time in the spring, opening the door fo the athletic Jenkins, who starred in the spring game with 10-of-19 passing for 194 yards and a touchdown.
"I think I gave them an idea of what I can do," Jenkins said. "But the spring is over with. I have to go into camp and do more than I did in the spring."
It's the most unsettled the team's most visible position has been since right before Ryan Perrilloux's arrival from LSU in the spring of 2008 and maybe the most unsettled it has been going into preseason practice since the Gamecocks moved to the FCS.
"But you've got guys you feel like can go in and win a game for you," Grass said. "That's a good problem.
"There are SEC teams that don't have a backup. I'd rather have some competition at the position then just have one guy and you're sitting there praying every snap he doesn’t twist an ankle because you don't have a guy on the sideline who can get it done. So we feel good about where our guys are. Hopefully, somebody steps out there and does this and be the guy. Hopefully, all of them won't go out and struggle."
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.