August 28, 2013 12:14:25 AM
SCOOBA -- Byerson Cockrell likes to listen.
The former Columbus High School standout defensive back always listens, whether it is to coaches, teammates or classmates. He is always striving for ways to improve his game.
Now in his second season at East Mississippi Community College, Cockrell returns to action Thursday night when the eighth-ranked Lions open the season with a non-division contest against Pearl River Community College.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at refurbished Dobie Holden Stadium in Poplarville.
"As a defensive unit, we have been working on (in fall camp) creating the mind-set to be physically devastating," Cockrell said. "I think we are pretty much ready to go. All of our focus this week has been on the little things. Once we started putting in the game plan, it was all about listening and paying attention to detail. The little things can get you beat. So we have spent a lot of time making sure everything was in place for us to be at our best."
In his freshman campaign, Cockrell recorded 21 total tackles and two interceptions. The season was cut short when Cockrell injured his left shoulder in the final regular season game of last season's 8-2 campaign. Surgery took place in November and Cockrell was held out of spring practice. The hold out was physical, not mental, as he attended every practice session and gained as much knowledge as possible about his position and his team.
"Even though coach sat me out of spring practice, I got a tremendous amount of mental reps," Cockrell said. "Sometimes, those can be just as good. They can help you get right in the head. The time off really did me good. I feel like I worked with the best trainers and doctors. I came back to the start of fall practice feeling 100 percent again. When you are away from something you like for a while, you miss it a lot. So I am really ready for the first game and a chance to be back out there with my teammates."
For the first time in Buddy Stephens' six seasons as head coach at EMCC, the Lions will play with a new defensive coordinator. Jordan Lesley takes over for William Jones, who ironically is the new head coach at Peal River.
"The main thing on the defensive side of the ball is that we have a lot of veterans," Lesley said. "When something is working well, you don't make a lot of changes. We will tweak some things here and there. But any coach does that throughout the season.
"We have warriors who have been to battle in this league. You try to get freshman -- such as Byerson last year -- as many snaps as possible. Then, they become your veteran leaders. Byerson is the type of player who works hard every day and he sets the type of example you want to see for the rest of the team.
Cockrell appreciates the accolades and embraces the leadership role. At the same time, he understands the team concept and feels like every player should bring their past experiences into the locker room. The big games and big experiences of the past can help lead to big achievements as a team in the year ahead.
"In high school, we were all winners to some extent," Cockrell said. "Even though we never had a chance to go to the playoffs (at Columbus), I have a lot of teammates who have played in big games and won championships We are all here because we belong. I like to listen to the other guys because they help show me the focus and dedication that is needed to win."
EMCC won its first eight games last season, including a 35-15 season-opening home win over Pearl River. The Lions would stretch its two-season win streak to 20 games before suffering a regular-season ending loss to Itawamba Community College -- Stephens' first road division loss as a head coach and a first-round home playoff loss to Copiah-Lincoln Community College -- EMCC's first loss at the new Sullivan-Windham Field.
With those experiences still fresh but in the back of their minds, the Lions are eager to start at new win streak. A chance to once again dominate the North Division starts in the fourth week of the season.
"The team is hungry again," Cockrell said. "We lost the last two games because we didn't so some of the little things right. I think that is why we listened more during the off-season. We have worked just as hard but we have worked on more of the little things. We don't want to be that close again and not get it done. I know I have been waiting a long time to play again.
"My teammates feel the same way based on what happened last year. I feel like this is the year we can put it all together and win a ring. The mind-set everyday in practice is working toward that ring."
Jones inherits a massive rebuilding task. The Wildcats finished 3-6 last season. Jones facing his former employer is not the only storyline. Stephens once coached at Pearl River, played at Pearl River and met his wife while playing with the Wildcats.
"Ah yes, storylines," said Stephens, who is 4-1 in season openers. "I am glad the media has something to write about. Yes, we know them. They know us. None of that matters at kickoff. Both teams will be trying to be 1-0."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter