September 12, 2018 11:02:57 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
East Mississippi Community College defensive coordinator Cliff Collins told the members of his defensive line they would be the key to a national championship.
Former West Point High School standout Everitt Cunningham took that challenge to heart.
"He wants the best defense in the country," Cunningham said. "That has become a tradition around here. Everybody wants to score a lot of points. However, this team has been built on defense. They want to win championships with a great defense."
Off to its best start in Collins' two seasons in charge, top-ranked EMCC (2-0) will face Itawamba C.C. (1-1) in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division opener at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Fulton.
"The defensive line play has been awesome," Cunningham said. "They have given the secondary time to make plays while the ball is in the air. We had some players change positions, so that has been a challenge. We just have continue to work hard to be 1-0 each week."
Cunningham, a 6-foot-3, 250-pounder who plays right end, has helped anchor a unit that has 13 tackles for loss, three sacks, and six turnovers (five interceptions, one fumble recovery).
"Fast and physical," Collins said. "What separates an elite line is the speed and size of your linemen. Can they get to a quarterback? Can they disrupt a passing game? We won (national) championships (in 2013 and 2014) with a dominating front line. The goal is to get back to that."
Cunningham has grown and developed into one of the state's best linemen.
"Our goal is to dominate the line of scrimmage," Cunningham said. "We try to get the ball back to our offense because we know they are going to score a lot of points. When you get back to the quarterback, it's an adrenaline rush. When you see the offensive coordinator on the sidelines and he doesn't know what play to run, that's when it's fun.
"You can tell when the other team's offensive line gets deflated."
Last Thursday, EMCC allowed a touchdown on the first possession in a 59-10 win at Pearl River C.C. Those are the only points allowed by the defense this season.
A year ago, EMCC recorded one shutout on the way to the national title. That total already has been matched. The 2014 national championship team had five shutouts.
"We are getting close to playing Lions defense again," Cunningham said. "It's personal for this unit. We were embarrassed a few times last season. That made us go harder during the offseason."
The coaches also allocated more out-of-state scholarship money for the defensive line. Cunningham is playing up front with Michigan State transfer Lashawn Paulino-Bell.
The line is littered with several other first-year players, including former West Point High standout Terence Cherry, who is battling for playing time at defensive tackle.
"You grow up fast," Cunningham said. "That first year, you are learning all about taking college classes and living away from home and all that. A year later, you are the leader. Everybody is looking up to you. We have a good brotherhood along the line. That helps when things are going tough. If one guy is down, we are all there to pick him up.
"I have grown up a lot in my time here. It's been a special time."
EMCC allowed 60 or more points twice to Northwest Mississippi C.C. last season. This year, Northwest Mississippi C.C. is No. 5 in the nation and EMCC's biggest threat to keep it from winning a ninth North Division title in 11 seasons.
While that game awaits in October, EMCC will face its biggest rival Thursday. The Lions have won five-straight games in the series. However, most of them haven't been easy, including a 44-42 thriller two years ago in Fulton.
"The defense has a lot more confidence this season," Cunningham said. "Even though we won (the national) championship, it felt like we were hanging on there at the end. This year, we want to send a statement. We want to be one of those old-school Lion defenses. This is another chance to show out."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter