There’s a certain unbalance that comes with playing football on the college level.
Players spend the offseason working. There are endless lifts, practices, film sessions, all that. And it all builds to what? Twelve games a year, maybe 13, maybe more if a team is lucky. So each one carries weight, each chance to a player has a level of preciousness.
This season, Gamecocks tailback A.J. Tuner felt the weight of being deprived of it.
The fourth-year junior got hurt early, then suffered a concussion that knocked him out against Missouri and kept him out against Texas A&M and through the bye week. He was finally cleared before Tennessee, but didn’t actually get a carry until the last week’s Ole Miss game.
And that kind of thing wears on a player, feeling games slipping away.
“To be honest, it was definitely hard on me, being hurt,” Turner said. “There’s not a lot of games in the season. At first I was really kind of bummed about it. I still am. I missed games. You don’t really get this year back. At the end of the day, I’m here. I’m still here. I’m still standing. I’m healthy. Not everybody can say that. No everybody has that ability.”
There’s a factor of the unknown with a concussion. It’s not a knee or an ankle with a clearer timeline. Gamecocks safety Nick Harvey has been out a month with one, with his return unclear.
Turner said the uncertainty left him down, but going through that means he takes less for granted.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp pointed out Turner is that breed of player who just loves playing any way he can. He’s not been as large a part of the rotation because of USC’s running back depth, so he helps on four special teams units, doing the dirty work that often goes unnoticed.
“It’s a frustrating time,” Muschamp said. “As much time as we put in as players through the offseason program and the lifting and all the commitment that you have, to just have 12 opportunities that you can go out there and play and you get some of those opportunities taken, it’s very frustrating. People have no idea the amount of time these young men put in.”
Quarterback Jake Bentley said he saw teammates supporting Turner and making sure he remained part of the group. Players doing their rehab work are often off to the side, and there can be some isolation in that.
“I think it’s a testament to the group of guys that’s in the running back room,” Bentley said. “All those running backs pick each other up.
“I think that’s one of the hardest things when someone gets hurt, kind of not feeling like they’re part of the team anymore. But the running backs just do an outstanding job of staying together.
Bentley added he’d seen some of the running backs join Turner in “the pit,” a sand pit where players not in full practice work with strength staffers.
Turner has been a fixture in USC’s backfield for three years now. He was the opening-day starter in 2016 as a redshirt freshman, beating out veterans such as David Williams. He watched Rico Dowdle take the top spot in the second half of that season, but ended up leading the 2017 Gamecocks in carries, becoming the last back standing after injuries and other factors.
This season, working behind Rico Dowdle and Ty’Son Williams, he has 26 carries for 148 yards. He’s been one of USC’s more explosive backs and scored his first touchdown of the year against Ole Miss last week.
The Gamecocks will go into this week’s showdown at Florida with Williams nursing a broken hand and Dowdle on a bum ankle. That likely means more Mon Denson and more Turner, something that’s not much of a surprise as the team often seems to turn to him.
But whatever the workload, just being out there will be enough.
“Just wanted to be out there so bad,” Turner said. “I know there’s days I went home and I was just real sad that I couldn’t play. I’m here now.”