July 7, 2014 9:52:55 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
Everyone likes to talk about football in the summer.
Lately, as anticipation has grown for each new season, a familiar question has been asked ... "Will EMCC be THAT good again?"
For the past three offseasons, that question has been met with the same response "Heck, why not?"
East Mississippi Community College has dominated the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior College ranks the past three seasons. The Lions have gone 32-2 en route to winning the 2011 and 2013 National Junior College Athletic Association national championships.
When EMCC won its first title in 2011, the Lions wanted to re-write the history of a downtrodden program. With the 2013 national championship, EMCC made its claim as one of the best programs in the MACJC. Only in-state rivals Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. and Northwest Mississippi C.C. have won multiple NJCAA titles.
Now the Lions want to stake a claim as one of the best in NJCAA history.
Butler County C.C. (Kansas) leads the way with six NJCAA football national championships. Blinn College (Texas) has four titles. Both schools have a sequence of back-to-back championships. However, neither school has a stretch of three titles in four seasons.
Last season, EMCC led the NJCAA with an average of 62.2 points per game. The Lions set a new standard with 7,327 yards of total offense. EMCC also set a new single-game record in a 90-7 home victory against Coahoma C.C.
Defensively, EMCC led the NJCAA in sacks with 67 and finished second with 30 interceptions. The Lions finished second nationally by allowing 9.8 points per game, which included a school-record five shutouts in 12 games.
BUILDING A MONSTER
In his first six seasons as coach, Buddy Stephens is 56-10. EMCC has won five MACJC North Division championships in six seasons and the school's first three state championships (2009, 2011, and 2013). The 12 wins in 2011 and 2013 are school records and are the only undefeated seasons in program history.
In a league perennially driven by parity, the question is how could this happen? Furthermore, how could it happen at a school where the football program has had a losing record 85 percent of the time?
For starters, Stephens is one of the most brilliant offensive minds this writer has had the privilege of covering. In the Lions' hurry-up, no-huddle offense, the quarterback is supposed to have seven options. Once the ball is snapped, one of the quarterback is supposed to choose one of those options in four seconds.
Defensively, Stephens has hired proven coordinators and given them the freedom to run the show. William Jones ran the defense in Stephens' first five seasons. Last season, that unit was even better under Jordan Lesley. The Lions also caught good fortune in that they went four seasons without major staff changes.
The MACJC always has been built on dynamic offensive playmakers and high-scoring games that put fans in the seats. EMCC has taken the same approach to building a tenacious defense.
EMCC also has benefited from difficult times at other schools. NWCC, the bell cow for so long in the northern part of the state, will feature its third coach in three seasons this fall. The previous hire -- Brad LaPlante -- won one game in his only season and lost to EMCC 79-7 at home. Itawamba C.C. coach Jon Williams resigned earlier this year after four seasons. Williams was 1-3 against EMCC. The Lions outscored the Indians 167-54.
In 2011, the MACJC eliminated recruiting districts. For the previous 20 seasons, each of the MACJC's 14 institutions could protect 22 student-athletes in their districts. Now any player is free to go to any MACJC institution.
Essentially, EMCC is throwing the best party in the state on an annual basis. The Lions drop the business card on the table and immediately become the front-runner for any athlete in the state.
Five Laurel High School players played for EMCC last season in the state championship victory against their hometown school, Jones Junior College. The former Golden Tornadoes are playing for national championships, while Jones will have its third coach in four seasons this fall.
EMCC isn't apologizing, and it shouldn't. Each school had the right to emphasize football when the recruiting districts went away. EMCC pumped even more money into the sport and Stephens continues to assemble a tireless staff willing to recruit every inch of the state.
Prior to the state championship game last season, retiring Jones coach Ray Perkins admitted his staff wasn't going to recruit north of Interstate 20 due to manpower and expense. EMCC would laugh at such a notion. If the best player in the state was on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Stephens would have that kid's address in his GPS.
We lost track of the original question -- How good will the Lions be in 2014?
The roster includes five quarterbacks, including three who earned player of the year honors in high school. Former Starkville High standout Preston Baker will have the running back position on lockdown. The receiving corps will be younger yet deeper. Some say this might be the best offensive line EMCC has assembled.
As long as Lesley is in charge of the defense, there is no reason to expect a drop-off. The Lions have seven players on The Clarion-Ledger's list of the 22 Most Wanted Junior College recruits, which was released earlier this month.
On Sunday, JCGridiron.com ranked EMCC No. 1 in its preseason rankings. The Sporting News has EMCC No. 2 in the nation on its list. Offensive lineman Jamal Danley and defensive lineman D.J. Jones made the magazine's Super Sophomores list.
Expect more of the same. If you need to talk to a senior college football coach this fall, get a coveted sideline pass to an EMCC home game at Sullivan-Windham Field, which is the state's best facility, but we won't list that in the pluses.
EMCC will dominate most Thursdays. Their players then will take official visits on Saturdays and tweet pictures from campuses throughout the nation. Don't think that kind of stuff is lost on 17- and 18-year-olds.
The 2014 MACJC season can be handicapped as the last three seasons have been -- the "haves" versus the "have nots." However, in this state, there is only one "have."
EMCC intends to keep it that way.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for The Dispatch. He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter