Southern Miss freshman Paul Gainer knew he was one injury away from taking the field during Saturday's season opener against Kentucky in Hattiesburg, but he won't soon forget the moment he was called on.
The USM coaching staff entered the game hoping that three true freshmen listed as second string on the offensive line depth chart, including Gainer, wouldn't face baptism by fire against an SEC opponent.
It just so happened that the man starting ahead of Gainer at left tackle, redshirt sophomore Drake Dorbeck, had to leave Saturday's game with an injury in the second quarter, forcing the Gautier native into action against the Wildcats.
USM lost 24-17, but Gainer was thrilled to get the chance to play.
“It was indescribable,” he said Saturday after the game. “I enjoyed every snap of this game. I just went out there and gave it my all. I loved everything about it.”
Dorbeck, who showed a great deal of promise as the new starting left tackle during fall camp, stood on the sideline for the entire second half with his left arm in a sling.
In the Vicksburg native's absence, the 6-foot-3, 287-pound Gainer more than held his own.
“I didn’t even notice Paul out there a whole lot, which is a testament to him,” USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “He went in and fought hard against some of the better pass rushers that he is probably going to see on the edge and he held his own, which is a testament to him playing well.”
Redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs replaced Keon Howard as the USM quarterback in the second half and the offense showed much more life. In just two quarters, Griggs completed 15 of 26 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns.
USM head coach Jay Hopson announced Griggs will start this Saturday's 6 p.m. home game against Southern University.
Griggs knows he'll likely be relying on a freshman left tackle again this week, but that's fine by him.
“He practices hard every day,” Griggs said of Gainer. “He's not one of those guys who is soft. He's a tough individual. I trust him. I trust him a lot. We've got a bond off the field as well.”
Hopson believes Gainer will only “get better and better” as he gets more time on the football field.
Leaving the field on Saturday, Gainer held his head high knowing that he could go head-to-head against SEC-caliber talent.
“It gives me a little confidence, but I've still got to be humble,” he said. “You still have to have a good head on your shoulders and know you have to bounce back next week and play another school just as good as Kentucky.”
Gainer admitted that the speed of Saturday's game was unlike anything he witnessed at Gautier High School.
“It's faster,” he said. “I was telling my buddy the other day, 'Our games in high school was like a college practice.' It took a whole lot of growth to get here and I'm blessed for it.”
Gainer grave credit to his more experienced teammates for putting him in the position he was Saturday.
“(The older players) took me under their wings,” he said. “Guys like Devin Farrior, Drake Dorbeck and Jerry Harris, they took me under their wings. They made sure I know the plays. When I went out there, the guys had my back the whole way.”
Who: Southern Miss vs. Southern University
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
Radio: 104.9 FM