August 20, 2010 10:27:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Jamie Mitchell isn''t the only coach who has noticed a difference in the Starkville Yellow Jackets.
Tyrone Shorter, the coach of the Jackets'' opponent, Noxubee County, tonight, has had plenty of opportunities to see Mitchell''s players grow from shell-shocked athletes to jamboree door-busters.
From the Yellow Jackets'' spring game through summer 7-on-7 games hosted by Starkville, Shorter has seen similarities between the Yellow Jackets and the teams Mitchell coached at Itawamba Agricultural High.
In each of the past three seasons, Noxubee County faced Itawamba AHS in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A playoffs, with Noxubee claiming two wins. Shorter was in charge of Noxubee County''s defense at the time, conjuring up ways to simplify defensive reads and adjustments to combat an offense that is anything but simple.
Shorter was reminded of just that Saturday at the Fall Football Jamboree at Mississippi State''s Davis Wade Stadium as the Tigers rolled West Lauderdale and then watched the Yellow Jackets play the next game against Jackson Callaway.
"His offense has a lot of shifting, motion and misdirection, which is very difficult," Shorter said. "Your defense has to stay at home and be disciplined. He can hurt you. I''m glad for him he took the Starkville job, but thinking about having to play them, you know how well you''ve got to be ready."
The Yellow Jackets and Tigers kick off the season at 7:30 p.m. at Yellow Jacket Stadium. The game is a rematch of Noxubee County''s 30-0 victory last season in Macon.
And while both coaches are in their first seasons as head coach at their schools, Shorter was an assistant for 11 years at Noxubee County in a system that has remained virtually unchanged.
Starkville''s turnover-free 21-0 jamboree win against Callaway helped the team''s confidence and showed the program has improved, but Mitchell contends his team is a week or two away from settling into his game-week preparation and the Yellow Jackets'' revamped coaching staff.
"It still seems like we''re chasing the freight train," Mitchell said. "We''d love to be further along, but, at the same time, it''s the first time they''ve been through a game-week situation with us. You realize they''ve got to continue to learn. But we''re pleased with where we are and we''re ready to get the season started."
Aiding in preparation for Mitchell and the Yellow Jackets is former Itawamba AHS staffers and current SHS coordinators Brooks Oakley and Preston Leathers'' familiarity with the Tigers. The fact Shorter has had a system overhaul helps, too, as Starkville players with returning experience have an added advantage.
Still, the same headaches begin when game planning against Noxubee County''s dearth of skill players and its stout defensive line.
"They''re extremely dangerous offensively and can score on any play," Mitchell said. "Noxubee''s MO against us has been the big play when we met them in the playoffs. They''ll take a busted play and turn it into a touchdown.
"Defensively, they''re so quick up front and can be very disruptive. Our offensive line has to have a great game."
Outside of the irony of Mitchell and Shorter leading their current programs, there''s similarities between the programs that could make for intriguing storylines.
First, each team has considerable youth at skill positions. For Starkville High, sophomore running backs Preston Baker and Gabe Myles combined for 73 yards on 10 carries against Callaway, while Noxubee County''s Antonio Ryland ran for 60 yards on eight carries against West Lauderdale.
Mitchell said his team''s starting tailback race has narrowed from five candidates to two, as Baker and senior Garrett Smith will probably split carries in the opener.
"Those have been the two who''ve stepped up," Mitchell said. "From there, it''ll be who produces the most."
Noxubee County saw sophomore quarterback Deangelo Ballard score on a 56-yard option play against West Lauderdale, further exciting Shorter about the potential of his skill players.
Shorter believes the Tigers'' running backs and receivers will benefit from three returning seniors on the offensive line, though members of the skill group will differ from recent standouts in the program.
"We don''t have the big receivers like we had with Vincent (Sanders) and Pat (Patterson), but we have more speed," Shorter said. "To hurt Starkville, we''re going to need to use that speed. They are physical up front and we''ve got to try and beat them on the edge, and that includes our passing game, which I did not like last week. We''ve got to have success in the passing game because we''ve got the guys to make plays."
Both teams are injury-free, outside of Starkville High linebacker Prinston Henderson, who continues to recover from meniscus surgery.