October 17, 2012 12:34:50 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
When he quarterbacked the Columbus High School team, Damian Baker knew the offense was reliant on his making big plays.
While Baker's address and position have both changed, his pension for the big play remains intact.
In his first junior college season, Baker has emerged as one of the state's top running backs. His ability to spark the running game is a big reason why fifth-ranked Northwest Mississippi Community College is off to a 6-0 start.
The Rangers will risk that perfect season and their national championship hopes Thursday night when they travel to Scooba to take on third-ranked East Mississippi Community College in a mammoth showdown for the North Division championship.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Sullivan-Windham Field.
"We are fifth and they are third so we know how big a game this is," Baker said. "For me, we are playing my hometown college so this is a really big deal. We want this game because it means home-field advantage in the playoffs. They are the defending champions, so we want to come to their place and take that from them."
Thanks to the elimination of recruiting districts by the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges, this is the first season that unique homecomings such as this one will take place. In the past, coaches could protect 22 players from inside their district, forcing them to stay home and play for the local junior college.
Baker is joined by former Columbus High School teammates Cedrick Jackson and Jamel Grant on the Northwest roster. Former Starkville High School player Cory Cannon is also a Ranger.
The EMCC roster includes seven players with Lowndes County ties, including the former Columbus High trio of Deontae Jones, Byerson Cockrell and Kenney Averhart.
"It all started on national signing day," Baker said. "As soon as we all signed, we started talking about this game. We talked about who was going to win. The fans have waited all year for this game, but the players have, too. It is going to be a lot of fun playing in this game."
If past Northwest games serve as any indication, Baker could play a huge role in the outcome of the contest. Through six games, Baker leads the team with 579 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Not only are all those numbers team-highs, they are quite remarkable considering he began the season as a wide receiver, playing a slot back position.
During the early stages of the season, the Rangers had one running back removed from the team and saw another go down with an ACL injury.
"As a freshman you just want to get on the field," Baker said. "I thought my career started out slow. The whole summer I was learning how to work out of the pistol (formation) properly. As we started playing games, they needed me to carry the ball. I just wanted to do whatever I could to help the team."
The contest appears to be one of contrasting styles. Northwest (6-0 overall, 5-0 North Division) plans to run the football, while EMCC (7-0, 4-0) thrives in a pass-happy offense, where scoring drives greater than two minutes in length are a disappointment.
"Our whole offensive line is basically from South Panola," Baker said. "That is what they do there, they run the football. They really don't know anything else. We have a great running game. It has not been stopped all year. After we establish the run, we air it out some.
"But our identity is a hard-nosed, physical rushing team. We want to pound the football and control the game. We try to impose our will on the other team."
Baker said the punishing style of junior college play has put his 5-foot-8, 180-pound body to the test.
"The thing I have learned about junior college football is that everybody is good," Baker said. "In high school, each team had a couple of weak defensive players and your job was to exploit them. Here, everybody can play. Everybody can tackle. Everybody can run. Each week, you are playing a big game."
Baker said the unique nature of junior college football exists because everyone is working hard to earn a senior college scholarship offer. That underlying goal leads to additional intensity and more good players playing better for longer periods of time.
"Most teams have good players across the offensive line," Baker said. "I have learned that backs that are my size can still make big plays. The main thing is reading the holes and running the ball hard. It is also important to protect the ball more, because every team is full of defensive players who are out to make that one big play."
EMCC enters the contest on a 19-game win streak. The Lions have taken advantage of the new recruiting policies to bring in more talent across the state. While many of his high school teammates will be on the other sidelines, Baker holds no ill feeling.
"It came down to the night before singing day," Baker said. "I prayed real hard about this decision. God led me to Northwest. I really believe He had a reason behind that. The bottom line is they have a really good team, but we do, too.
"Even if we were in the backyard playing this would be fun. Then when you factor in everything riding on the game, you realize how great this one football game will be."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter