August 8, 2014 12:08:16 PM
SCOOBA -- At most places, the opening day of football practice is met with enthusiasm. It also is met with a reserved confidence and the cliche that a team plans to take it "one game at a time."
Things are different at East Mississippi Community College.
The Lions insist all focus and energy of fall camp is pointed at the Aug. 28 season opener at Southwest Mississippi C.C. At the same time, most players admit the goal is a repeat National Junior College Athletic Association national championship.
"Each week we have the goal to be 1-0 when that week ends," EMCC sophomore defensive lineman D.J. Jones said. "We all know at the end of the year where a bunch of 1-0 weeks will put us. We win championships around here. That is what this program is all about. We want to go back to back. We know how hard you have to work to win a championship. The goal is to win another."
Players reported Wednesday and coach Buddy Stephens held the first practice of his seventh season Thursday morning. The Lions will alternate single sessions and two-a-days until classes begin Aug. 18. Media Day also is set for that day. A nine-game regular season starts 10 days later at Southwest.
"There will be a lot of pressure on us because the bull's eye will be back on our backs again this year," EMCC sophomore running back Preston Baker said. "Nobody feels more pressure than the pressure we put on ourselves. We really strive for excellence around here. It is good to be back around the guys and it is good to get started. We don't need any expectations from anyone else because we set our own ones quite high."
EMCC has won 32 of its last 34 games, including 26 of the last 27 in regular-season play. The Lions won the NJCAA national championship in 2011 and 2013. This season, EMCC will attempt to become the first state school with three championships and the first program in NJCAA history to win three titles in four seasons.
"We really want to make some history," EMCC sophomore quarterback Todd Mays said. "It seems like there is always some type of history out there we are trying to make. To be able to be the first team to repeat here would be quite the accomplishment. Even though we lost some great players off last year's team, we have some really great new guys.
"They are ready to come in and compete for playing time. You aren't going to see a drop off with this year's team."
A year ago, Dontreal Pruitt, who is now at Troy, threw for 3,939 yards and 45 touchdowns. Mays, a former high school All-America quarterback at Olive Branch High School, served as Pruitt's backup and ran the offense in goal-line and short-yardage situations. Mays also spent time at running back and receiver.
This season, the quarterback race will be resolved in fall camp. Clemson transfer Chad Kelly, the nephew of Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly, is in camp. Mays, Joseph Willis, of Madison Central; Wyatt Roberts, of Louisville; and Rip Kirk, of South Panola; are in the mix.
"Playing more than one position here has really helped me," Mays said. "To play on the next level, it is important to show some versatility. I am comfortable with whatever is asked of me to help us win. The competition at this position is really good because nobody is going to give you anything here."
Baker is expected to anchor the backfield. A year ago, the former Starkville High standout ran for 481 yards. He will look to fill the void left by 1,300-yard rusher Lakenderic Thomas.
"I learned so much from (Thomas)," Baker said. "The main thing is I learned how to be more of a power back. He would line up and run over people. I have to be more like that to succeed on this level."
Baker has added tremendous upper body muscle to a frame listed as 5-foot-10, 215 pounds last season. He will run behind a seasoned offensive line led by Jamal Danley, the nation's No. 2 offensive line prospect, according to JCGridiron.com.
When the preseason NJCAA national rankings are released Tuesday, EMCC is expected to be No. 1 or No. 2. Sophomore wide receiver Brandon Acker feels like that number can be supported.
"We got a show lined up for this season," Acker said. "Everybody likes to win. You sign with a team because you think you can go there and help them win. It's different here. You come here knowing you are going to win. The freshman come here and they know what the expectation is right away. We are here to put on a show and have a good time. We have the talent to back it up."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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