August 11, 2014 9:40:43 AM
One quick observation at practice shows you why Columbus Christian Academy football coach Greg Watkins thinks his club will be significantly better in 2014.
The Rams have depth. The former Immanuel Christian School has some size, speed, muscle, and strength. The Rams also have several players who look ready to do battle on Friday nights.
Last season, Columbus Christian had to go all the way down to eighth-graders to be able to list 20 varsity players. This season, Watkins said the team has as many as 20 players from grades 10-12 and that the full roster should exceed 30 -- and possibly reach 35 -- for the Aug. 22 opener at Delta Academy.
"For the first time in a real long time, we have depth here," Watkins said. "I realize every football team has depth issues. No team can afford injuries. However, when you are talking Class A academy ball, depth is an incredible asset to have. I think it will be a huge plus for us."
From 2007-09, Immanuel Christian won two games. The Rams were making the slow transformation from eight-man to 11-man football. After winning six games in 2010, the enthusiasm was cut short when the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools moved the school to Class AA in 2011.
Watkins carried the team to five wins in the next two seasons as a Class AA school with a roster size most likely smaller than this season's.
"We really struggled," Watkins said. "It has taken a while to have the right fit (Class A) and the right numbers. We feel like we can really compete in this situation. We won some games last year, and that really had a carry-over effect."
In its first year back in Class A, the Rams finished 4-7 last year. Still, Immanuel Christian missed a chance to win the district championship in a 28-26 loss to Deer Creek Academy in the final week of the regular season.
Last week, several players admitted that crushing defeat was the springboard for even more hard work in the offseason. With the program on the upswing and interest building, more players have picked up the phone and said they wanted in.
Columbus Christian returns to school today. The Rams have opened practice with three sessions each day -- something Watkins never dreamed of in the past. The middle practice session each day has focused exclusively on special teams.
Aaron Meek appears to have the cornered the kicking market. All but a handful of kickoffs easily made the end zone during last Monday's workout. Meek will handle kickoff, punting, and place-kicking chores. Watkins calls sophomore Dawson Shaw an "explosive pack of dynamite." Even though he stands about 5-foot-5, Shaw has an explosive first step and will be counted on in the return department.
"Essentially, special teams are usually an afterthought for a 1A academy," Watkins said. "You just put your best athletes out there and whatever happens, happens. This team should be different. We feel like we really can excel in all areas of special teams. We feel like we will have enough depth to be able to do the little things very well."
Senior KC Cunningham will return in his do-everything position. Cunningham expects to anchor the backfield and will be counted on to provide senior leadership for a team that is still young in several spots.
"This team has the best attitude I have ever been around," Cunningham said. "We have a legitimate chance to surprise some people this year. Instead of having that one weak area here or there, we have some guys who can really step in and contribute at every position."
The Rams are still working their way through the quarterback position with the departure of Jay Jay Swanigan, who returned to Columbus High School. Koby Bailey has gotten the majority of snaps in early practice sessions. Bailey, who last played quarterback in sixth grade, was a wide receiver last season.
The other obvious by-product of more depth is less fatigue. Almost all players go both ways for most Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class A teams. Watkins expects as many as eight starters to play both ways this season. However, it won't be out of necessity.
"We are going to play more people this year because we have more options," Watkins said. "I think you are going to see a more complete team, and that is going to go a long way toward helping us win. The players have set the goal of winning the district championship since we felt like it got away last year."
The Rams won two of their first three games last season. Cunningham said the success energized the team. Even though the season ended with four straight losses, including a setback in the opening round of the Class A playoffs, the renewed confidence has been a huge motivator for this season.
"Once we got some wins, everybody started believing," Cunningham said. "That is why we have this many players out here. They believe in what we are doing, and they want to be there when we get the job done."
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for The Dispatch. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter