JACKSON — Football practices aren’t exactly the most exciting events. Only a handful of die-hards come out to watch what on many days amounts to no-tackling, no-pads football. There was one regular visitor to Jackson State practices who sat quietly at attention throughout the 2008 season.
Coach Rick Comegy would just smile when asked who the stocky kid was, then say: “My secret weapon.”
A year later, with preseason camp set to begin on Aug. 4, Jamal Carter is no longer a secret. The 6-foot-1, 305-pound defensive tackle is ready for his freshman season after sitting out last year. And if Comegy’s premonitions were correct, Carter should earn plenty of playing time on a new-look defensive line that is expected to be one of the deepest units on the team.
Carter’s situation wasn’t unique. Each year, players across the country sit out a season after not meeting the NCAA’s freshman academic qualifying standards. They’re often disconnected from the team, though, because coaches aren’t allowed to work with those sitting out. Carter didn’t want that, so he silently watched from the side.
“I wanted to learn the system, learn about the players — mostly just be seen,” Carter, 19, said. “I didn’t want to be all stuck up and have the big head. I wanted to be around my teammates.”
Defensive coordinator Darrin Hayes took notice.
“When guy’s are (academically ineligible), we’re hands off,” Hayes said. “We can’t stop him from coming around. He just wanted to feel part of that team and that bond. That’s what he was accustomed to.
“Some guys disappear and you don’t see those guys until the next year. He hung around those guys so tough and wanted them to know him and he wanted to know who they were.”
The coaching staff hopes Carter is one of those rare finds who slip through the grasp of larger Division I-A programs.
Carter has brute strength with a touch of speed that coaches covet in defensive tackles. Tiny Livingstone High School in Alabama went winless during his senior year and Carter was relatively unknown. He impressed Alabama at its camps and planned to become part of the Crimson Tide. But grades ended those thoughts and no one else really knew about Carter.
“It’s like a big fish in a small pond,” Hayes said. “Generally some people can sign you, but if you’re not going to Nike and Rivals camps you fly under the radar — which is good for us.
“You get guys who are major Division I talents, but because they went to a small school and didn’t go to those camps to get a whole lot of exposure, they fly under the radar.”
Carter said he didn’t even know about the NCAA Clearinghouse, which determines incoming freshmen eligibility. He struggled through his first semester academically, but straightened things out and now hopes to raise his grade point average to 3.0.
Now football is the focus. Carter has put up 505 pounds in the bench press and Comegy has taken to calling him “Manster.”
“He’s like a grown man in terms of everything,” Hayes said. “He looks like he’s 40, but he’s just a baby. Sometimes you look at a guy like him and realize he’s an older guy in terms of his maturity level and that he’s been here before.
“He has a lot of intangibles. You never never know what a freshman is going to do. As far as the measurables, he’s probably one of the strongest guys on the team. He runs very well, very mobile. An aggressive mean streak to him. A diamond, I guess, in the rough.”
Carter could help fill the void left by Dennis Coit, who was a plug in the middle and commanded double-teams.
Neal Pogue returns at one defensive tackle. Also back is end Sam Washington, who ranked No. 6 in the SWAC with 6 1/2 sacks and tied for No. 7 with 15 1/2 tackles for loss. Terrence Banks and Terrance Onyiuke are back to factor in the middle. Donovan Robinson, the star of the Mississippi Valley State win in 2008 with a game-ending sack, will attempt to replace the JSU single-season sacks record holder Marcus Benard.
Carter has lived with Onyiuke over the summer, electing to stay and work out with strength and conditioning coach Derek Scott, and Onyiuke knows what Carter is all about. He’s been working on getting his hips more fluid, his handwork and just overall technique.
“He’s a workaholic,” Onyiuke said. “He’s trying to get all the mental in right now. He really has the attitude of a learner.
“And he’s stronger than most seniors right now, as a freshman. There shouldn’t be any reason his game shouldn’t elevate. By the time he’s a senior he should be unstoppable.”
But what about rust? Carter said he literally hasn’t put on a pair of shoulder pads in over a year.
“It’s different for big guys,” Hayes said. “Once you’ve been hit, all the other stuff goes out the window. Now you’ve got to work on teaching technique, leverage and things like that. But if you hit somebody, you’re right back in it.
“It takes a little longer for skill players who haven’t caught or thrown a lot of balls. With linemen, basically I’m going to ask you to knock the hell out of that guy in front of you. How much remembering do you need to know that?”
Said Carter: “That’s just natural. I’m not really worried about that.”
He is worried about perceptions. Though, worried may be too strong of a word.
But with a body made for defensive tackle, coaches have been left to dream about Carter’s potential for an entire year.
“(The coaches) have high expectations and I don’t want to let them down,” Carter said. “They really expect me to play like Coit.
“I just want to have my presence felt. I don’t want to beat Marcus Benard’s sack record. Help the team out, that’s basically what I want to do.”