Clark Atlanta coming home -- finally

Week 1, on the road. Week 2, on the road. Week 3, on the road. Week 4? Surely it can’t be? Yep, on the road.

Four road games to start the 2010 season with a young, inexperienced team, what kind of curse was this?

Well, turns out it’s the kind of curse that looks like a blessing in hindsight. And that’s not just because five of the remaining six games are at home. McNeill figured out not long after studying the schedule that playing away from the potential trappings and distractions of Atlanta, for a team this young, was indeed a good way to start.

“The first time I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh, God, no,’ but it was what the doctor ordered. It gave me a chance to have the kids focused on the road, helping them to understand the total focus of being together.

“Things have happened in the past. I mean, look at Atlanta, there is so much to do. And more than 70 percent of our guys are off campus. What are they doing on Friday nights that are carrying over to Saturday’s game? We’ve got a largely new staff, and I’m wondering how all of this is going to work with kids everywhere, not knowing them well enough to know how disciplined they are and who has cousins coming in for the weekend. So the more I thought about it, the more I liked the chance to grow together on the road.”

No one has to look too hard to find a college football team dealing with off-field issues, underage drinking and arrests. And of course, kids can get in trouble during the week as well as the weekend. But McNeill believes he has come to know his team better the past four weeks, and the players have had four more weeks of being preached to about doing the right things.

“I think we’re ready to be at home now,” he said. “I really feel that they understand now how important their teammates are to each other and how one person can make all of us look bad.”

Clark is 2-2 this season with its defense carrying most of the load. But senior running back Winston Thompson, who had a 200-yard game a couple of weeks ago, is ready for the offense to start doing its share. And for him, there’s no better place to start that than at home.

“I think we’re improving on offense,” Thompson said. “Pretty soon the offense and defense on same page. I know we’re going to be more comfortable with a home crowd.”

By his own admission, Thompson is not the biggest or fastest running back around. But he makes up for that with work ethic and tremendous vision. He has averaged 105 yards per game and has five touchdowns.

“Right now, Winston, is our best running back, our best receiver, pretty much everything,” McNeill said. “We’re hanging our hat on him to pull us through.”

Thompson, a usually sure-handed runner, fumbled twice Saturday. It about killed him, McNeill said.

“He was coming to team meetings this week with a ball in his hands,” McNeill said. “He takes to coaching very well. He’s the kind of guy who helps wash the team clothes, put them back in the locker, whatever. He will go above and beyond what a star player usually does, and he’s one of the three best I’ve coached in my 28 years.”

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