In his statistical forecast for this season, Dustin Gayton said his goal is to have 15 sacks.
"I’ve got to hold myself to a higher standard this year," he said.
Indeed, the former West Forsyth standout and Jacksonville State linebacker is not on any ordinary team nor approaching any ordinary season. Gayton is now a bonafide playmaker and senior leader for a Gamecocks team that is ranked in the top 10 of Football Championship Series preseason polls. Jacksonville State has national championship expectations. Gayton has NFL aspirations.
Neither seems far-fetched anymore, not after the Gamecocks made a run to the FCS Playoff quarterfinals. Yes, Jacksonville State lost 35-24 to Eastern Washington, but, to the Gamecocks, it came with an asterisk – starting quarterback Eli Jenkins and running back DeMarcus James both missed the second half with injuries.
"We should have definitely won the game," Gayton said.
Now, Jenkins and James both return healthy, and Gayton returns buoyed by the confidence he found during Jacksonville State’s playoff run.
Until then, Gayton had only performed slightly better than his sophomore season when the 2010 Forsyth County News’ Defensive Player of the Year played in 12 games and made 20 tackles with two sacks. Gayton had 32 tackles and three sacks in 10 games going into the first round against Samford,
The urgency of the playoffs inspired Gayton. It was his first taste of it at JSU. It was why he switched his commitment in high school from Georgia Southern to the Gamecocks after he saw them upset Ole Miss, 49-48 in double overtime, during his senior year at West.
"I thought, ‘OK, Jacksonville State must be a really good program,’" Gayton said.
Instead, Jacksonville State went 7-4 and 6-5, respectively, and missed the playoffs in Gayton’s first two seasons while Georgia Southern made back-to-back FCS semifinals appearances. So here was Gayton finally where he expected to be all along.
The change came in the film room. Gayton threw himself into hours of studying Samford game tape. He investigated them to find weaknesses in opposing offensive linemen he could exploit with the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder’s combination of agility and strength.
"You know, it’s the added extra pressure when you make it to the playoffs and you play these really good teams," Gayton said. "You know you have to do anything to get to the quarterback."
Gayton was a terror against Samford with three tackles, two sacks and a tackle for loss in a 55-14 victory. He was even better the next week against McNeese State – four tackles, three tackles for loss and three sacks in a 31-10 win.
Gayton takes that confidence going into this season, his last, one in which he intends to make an impression on NFL scouts who now, more than ever, covet defensive players who can rush the quarterback. He doesn’t dismiss that play-making outburst in the playoffs as an outlier. He believes he’s tapped into another degree of his potential.
"I guess it was a confidence thing," Gayton said. "I had the mindset on every single play that this guy was not going to block me. That’s huge in anything you do. I think I found my confidence, found my stride."
He has a new position coach, Nick Gentry, who came from Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama ("He’s really taught me a lot about pass-rushing," Gayton said.)
He has a platform to display his talent, as the Gamecocks open the season against Michigan State, the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions ("Playing against the bigger competition … it’s the only way you’re going to get noticed really," he said.)
He has team that will be in the spotlight ("I think we’re definitely going to try to win a [national championship]," he said.)
Gayton has everything he wanted when he left West Forsyth in 2010 – almost.
"It all depends on me staying healthy this year and producing, but I definitely see a lot of potential in me playing at the next level," Gayton said. "I just got to stay consistent in my game, play smart. I’m excited about what’s ahead."