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Walters Column: Starkville loads up with confidence for 2014 season

 

Scott Walters

 

During fall camp, sports writers are frequently hit by coaches not willing to boast about their ballclubs. 

 

By now, we know all teams must take it "one game at a time" and "avoid injuries." 

 

You also can count on a few "hope to be competitive" comments, as well as a reminder that the season is a "marathon not a sprint." 

 

Perhaps, that is why it was so refreshing to stop in at Starkville High School's Meet the Jackets Monday night. 

 

Most of the off-season buzz around the Starkville program has centered around whether the new turf at the Starkville High football field would be ready for the Aug. 22 home opener with Noxubee County. There has been less talk about the team. 

 

In this case, less talk is rather bizarre. Those close to the program know Starkville should be really, really good in 2014. 

 

FROM THE TOP 

 

When interviewing coaches for preseason football stories, one will always ask "strengths" and "weaknesses" for the team. 

 

Starkville fifth-year coach Jamie Mitchell summed up his strengths rather quickly. 

 

On his group of wide receivers: "Easily the most talented group of receivers in my 26 years of coaching. We are tall, deep, athletic and very skilled at that position." 

 

On his defensive line: "Our front four will be the best in the state. Granted, that is only my opinion, but I think you will see when the season starts just how good they really are." 

 

Starkville won the Class 5A state championship in 2012. Many feel the squad will be even better in 2014. 

 

A year ago, Starkville allowed 18.3 points per game during a 9-4 campaign. On defense, seven position starters return, including the entire secondary. 

 

Starkville recorded 15 sacks and picked off 11 passes last season. 

 

Senior quarterback Brady Davis calls the Starkville defense: "Nasty - absolutely nasty." 

 

Senior wide receiver Raphael Leonard on the Starkville defense: "I am glad they come with me on my bus. I absolutely would hate going against them during a game. It's bad enough we have to do that in practice." 

 

The Starkville offense made strides last season but it was still missing that dynamic play-making ability provided by quarterback Gabe Myles and running back Preston Baker during the state championship run. 

 

Then Davis decided to transfer from New Hope to Starkville. Last season, Davis threw for 2,626 yards and 23 touchdowns on a team which won four games. Granted this was also a team which allowed 76 points in one game. 

 

"It's like a new life here," said Davis, a University of Memphis commitment. "The guys have taken me in and accepted me right away. It's my job to lead and they have made it so much easier." 

 

Even though New Hope and Starkville did not play last season, many in the area knew about Davis' dizzying array of statistics on a dismal team. Still, it can be hard to adjust to a new home. 

 

"He came in as our leader from the first day," Starkville senior wide receiver A.J. Brown said. "We all knew about his ability. Then you watch him throw the ball in practice one day and you are excited. He stepped into the huddle and took over right away. You could tell he was going to be a confident leader." 

 

Seniors Matt Fuller and Jacquez Horsley are back at running back positions. The receivers -- according to both Leonard and Brown -- can easily go six deep with big-time play makers. 

 

The offensive line is the closest thing to a concern. When you talk defense, the adjectives of praise are free-flowing. 

 

TOUGH SCHEDULE 

 

If there was one part of preseason interviews which followed the script this week, it involved the schedule. 

 

Every coach makes their schedule out to be the ultimate test of strength and endurance. In Starkville's case, it is true. 

 

The Yellow Jackets open with 2012 Class 4A state champion Noxubee County, 2014 Class 5A favorite Oxford and traditional Class 5A power West Point in week three. Some preseason rankings have included both Oxford and Starkville in the top three, making the second contest of the season a highly-entertaining non-region matchup. Starkville will also travel to Florence (Ala.), before Class 6A, Region 2 play begins with Columbus. Eventually, Madison Central will also appear on the card. 

 

"The schedule is loaded," Mitchell said. "We won't have to defend that. We know a whole lot after the first five weeks of the season. If we perform well in those games, it could set up for a nice season." 

 

Starkville will most likely clinch "nice season" status early in the year. 

 

The season begins Saturday with a preseason game against Terry at Davis Wade Stadium on the MSU campus. You can go ahead and look for the Yellow Jackets back on that same field four months later playing for a first-ever Class 6A state championship.  

 

Scott Walters is a sports reporter for the Commercial Dispatch. He may be reached at swalters@cdispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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