The Jacksonville State sophomore strong safety had a career day in the Gamecocks’ 24-22 season-opening win at Alabama State. And he attributes it to getting “the best sleep I ever got in my life” the night before a game.
It was like Rip Van Winkle when compared to the restless night he had before his first college start last year at Arkansas. Between the opponent’s name, its top 10 ranking and the prospect of starting in his first college game against a dynamic offense kept him tossing and turning all night.
Not so this time. Cozied up in the Winfrey Hotel in Hoover, Bender went out like a light the moment his head hit the pillow. He didn’t get up again until the wake-up call came.
“Last year, I was really nervous,” he said. “When you’re playing your first game you don’t want to get beat deep and you worry about factors in the game that don’t matter, like the crowd or whatever is going on.
“This year, I was really calm. I was up and ready to go mostly because I know what you put in you get out and we worked so hard. I just felt no matter what we were going to play good ball and I just felt emotionally good about the game.”
It showed in the results. Bender had a team-high 14 tackles (nine solos) after having 23 all last season. They were the most in a game by a JSU player since linebacker Rashad Smith had 14 against Austin Peay (13 solos) last November and the most by a JSU defensive back since cornerback Rashad Byers had 15 against Tennessee Martin the week before.
“I wasn’t expecting to have 14 because when the defense plays good, safeties don’t make a number of tackles,” he said. “But the defense played good, and I just happened to make a lot of tackles. We were all swarming to the football.
“When you’ve got a coaching staff that really cares about you and puts their trust in you before the game, that’s when you feel like you’ve got nothing to lose. All they’re looking for is some maximum effort.”
That many tackles in a game could make a linebacker jealous. Senior middle linebacker Brent Tolson said he was appreciative of the effort Bender put forth – and, in fact, wouldn’t mind seeing it again.
“The linebackers are always kind of feisty or mad when someone else gets more tackles, but we actually appreciate it,” Tolson said. “A lot of things we bounced outside (last week) and with the great safeties and corners we’ve got, you keep bouncing outside, they’re going to keep snuffing you outside.
“We were very excited when we found out he had 14. Hopefully we get him to have another 14 tackles.”
Maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise Bender slept through the night before such an emotional game. He probably got a good night sleep right after.
Truth is, he considers himself a good sleeper -- sometimes even catching himself nodding off at some inopportune times.
“I feel like I’ve got a sleeping problem,” he said. “Sometimes in meetings my eyes get so heavy from working so hard I doze off from time to time. But, yeah, I feel like I’m a pretty good sleeper.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.