August 30, 2013 11:28:49 AM
POPLARVILLE -- A.J. Stamps spent the past nine months learning a new position.
The East Mississippi Community College sophomore defensive back proved Thursday night at Dobie Holden Stadium he could be pretty good at it.
Once signed to play wide receiver, Stamps showed his pass-catching abilities on the defensive side, with a game-clinching 100-yard interception return during No. 8 EMCC's 49-6 season-opening victory against Peal River C.C.
"I knew what to do when I caught that ball," Stamps said. "There was not a doubt that I was going to take it back to the house. Even though I am on defense now, I have the same mind-set every game. I feel like I can score a touchdown every time we play."
In his first career start, EMCC sophomore quarterback Dontreal Pruitt threw four touchdown passes over his team's first five possessions. During this same stretch of play, PRCC managed 18 yards of total offense.
The Wildcats then finally found a rhythm. On its best drive of the night, PRCC moved to the EMCC 4-yard line. Up against the first-half clock expiring, PRCC quarterback Will Gross could not choose between two open receivers on a fourth-and-3 play. Instead, Gross split the difference, threw over the middle and Stamps took it from one end zone to the other for a 35-0 halftime lead.
"He is fast," EMCC coach Buddy Stephens said. "That is why we put him on defense. We needed more speed on defense. To A.J.'s credit, he has learned all of the nuisances of the position. He has Southeastern Conference potential. He can play this game on the highest level. I think you saw tonight what he did in his first game on defense."
Stamps was a dominating force on defense all night. The former Vicksburg High School standout had his first interception on PRCC's first possession. Stamps also had a sack, a tackle for loss and a pass break-up on a 2-point try after PRCC's lone touchdown.
EMCC first-year defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley had indicated wholesale changes were not in store for the defense, but do expect a minor tweak here or there. Apparently, the first tweak is to play the game at a much higher speed.
"We do everything a lot faster than we were doing it," Stamps said. "It's now go, go, go. It is all about speed. It's now a fast-break defense to go along with our fast-break offense. You saw tonight that we can have some real fun with what we are doing on defense now."
The Lions forced four turnovers and allowed 228 yards of total offense. PRCC only had 84 yards in the first half and ran only 27 offensive plays in the second half. Starting quarterback Will Gross completed more passes to Lions (two) than to his own team (one) in the opening half.
"We took a hard look at our defense and we simplified some things," Stephens said. "Now, it is much more read and react. Jordan is doing the things on defense and that we have been doing on our offense. So now our two styles complement one another more.
"Getting some more speed on defense was the key. We had to shuffle some personnel and we had to get the right people in place. To see this kind of defensive effort in the first game tells you the plan is definitely in place."
Offensively, EMCC rolled up 400 yards of total offense and 24 first downs. Three of the Lions' fives scoring drives were in the magic two-minutes or less range. Pruitt completed 21-of-33 passes for 259 yards.
Last season, Stamps would be catching passes from Pruitt. Now, he is one of the sophomore signal-caller's biggest fans.
"You saw the poise of a veteran out there," Stamps said. "He made the right reads. He made the right calls. You saw him really get into a rhythm on offense. When we are in a rhythm on offense, some special things can happen."
Former Heritage Academy standout Brandon Bell caught a touchdown pass, as did Antoinne Adkins, Kameron Myers and C.J. Bates. Bates also scored on a 62-yard punt return.
"We had a great fall camp and everybody was really ready to come out and go," said Bell, who had two receptions for 39 yards. "We let the last two games slip away (last season), so everybody was really determined to come out strong and get this thing started right.
"We left no doubt that we could be the type of team that could come out and dominate somebody else. So this is a good start. Now, we have to come out and do that again next week."
After seeing a 20-game, two-season win streak snapped with two brutal losses to end 2012. This bunch of Lions is eager to start a new win streak.
Next week also provides Stamps another opportunity to aim for the end zone.
"I will be looking for my chance every week, no doubt about it," Stamps said. "You play the game because you want to score touchdowns. I don't get as many chances now as I once did, so I got to take advantage of them."
Follow Dispatch sports reporter Scott Walters on Twitter at @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter