September 23, 2010 7:41:00 AM
Donnelli Johnson had a choice to make.
The former East Oktibbeha County High School standout could have done what a lot of individuals in his position would have done and played back-to-back seasons at East Mississippi Community College.
But Johnson realized there was a bigger picture.
While his teammates prepared for the 2009 season, Johnson opted to focus on his academics and to take a year off from game action. He still practiced and worked in the weight room and did conditioning drills with the Lions, but his goal was to prepare for the 2010 season.
"There was a lot more I could learn on this level, so I just felt like if I could come back there was a lot more I could do to get better and get a chance to go to a better school as opposed to walking on to a school," Johnson said.
The decision has paid off so far for Johnson, who has teamed with former Noxubee County High School standout Jimmy Roby to form a dynamic duo at linebacker.
Johnson and Roby will try to help defending MACJC state champion EMCC (0-3) get back on track at 7 tonight when it travels to Fulton to take on Itawamba C.C. in a key North Division game at Lambert Stadium.
EMCC is coming off a 25-19 loss to No. 10 Northwest C.C. last week, while ICC (1-2) defeated East Central C.C. 21-14 in Decatur.
Johnson and Roby have done their parts. Johnson, who is playing WILL linebacker, is third on the team with 32 tackles (18 solos). He also has two tackles for loss. Roby is second on the team in tackles (to Chris Bertucci, 48) with 37, including 18 solos.
Johnson said the year away from game action allowed him to re-take several classes to improve his grade-point average, which he hopes will improve his chances to get to play football at a four-year school.
"I feel like it was the best decision," Johnson said. "I felt like this would my blessing.
EMCC coach Buddy Stephens credits Johnson for realizing the benefits to staying in Scooba another season. He said junior colleges aren''t allowed to redshirt players, but he said many athletes, particularly ones from smaller schools, securer better college choices when they decide to take a year as a practice player so they can adjust to the speed of the game and mature physically.
Stephens said the ability of players to "redshirt" helped Pearl River C.C. have success when he was a coach at that school. He hopes to follow the same blueprint at EMCC.
"To his credit he has stuck it out," Stephens said of Johnson. "When Donnelli first got here he didn''t have a lot of patience. We tried to get him to see the vision of getting a degree and graduating understanding the importance of academics in the whole scheme of things. The key for him was understanding that a getting a college education is going to lead to some very good things down the road
"It is really refreshing when you find a young man who is self-actualized and realizes, ''Hey, there is a need for them to hold off a year from playing to get more established academically and to get bigger, stronger, and more physical. When that happens, nine times out of 10 the young man ends up signing with a bigger school than he would have if he had not done that."
Roby, who plays MIKE linebacker, hasn''t followed the same path as Johnson, but he has had just as much success. Like Johnson, he feels he has emerged as a leader who has improved from last season but has plenty to work on.
"I am playing all right. It can be better," Roby said. "I think I am being a team player who is going to help the help team come back up and have a great ending to this season."
Stephens said Roby showed last season he had the potential to be a big contributor as a sophomore, and he hasn''t disappointed, especially with how Johnson and Roby have played together.
"I really trust those guys when they are in the ballgame," Stephens said. "They have done everything we have asked them to do."
Now Johnson and Roby wants to help the Lions reverse their 0-3 start. Both players feel the team has the potential to get back to its winning ways if it corrects its mistakes and takes care of the football.
They hope tonight will be the first step back to playing that way.
"I feel I have played pretty good, but there always is room for improvement," Johnson said. "We could play better, and that''s what we''re going to do."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.