STARKVILLE — The junior college system in the state of Mississippi has been kind to the top-ranked University of Alabama and the No. 13 Mississippi State University football programs.
Both programs have re-stocked their talent with players from the 14 Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges teams. That talent will be on display at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) when MSU (7-0. 3-0 Southeastern Conference) takes on Alabama (7-0, 4-0) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. MSU has eight players on its active roster who were recruited from the Mississippi junior college system. Fourth-year MSU coach Dan Mullen has built his program in Starkville by sprinkling in current top players from the junior college ranks — like linebacker Chris White and running back Vick Ballard (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College) and defensive end Pernell McPhee (Itawamba C.C.) and mixing them with four-year players. White (Buffalo Bills), Ballard (Indianapolis Colts), and McPhee (Baltimore Ravens) used their experience at MSU to springboard to the NFL.
Impact players like those three and current MSU defensive end Denico Autry and cornerback Darius Slay have helped MSU solidify the program. This season, Autry and Slay are part of a group that is third in the SEC in scoring defense (14.4 points per game).
“It’s huge because we are a developing program, and when you look at the track record, we need them to contribute sooner and rather than later,” Mullen said. “A lot of guys come in as freshmen and then the next year they get to play on special teams and eventually become a star player. Junior college guys skip those steps.”
Autry, one of the most acclaimed junior college prospects in the nation out of East Mississippi C.C., was brought to Starkville to transform the Bulldogs’ pass rush. While results have been slower than expected, Autry is second on the team with two sacks.
Last season, Autry earned a four-star ranking from recruiting evaluators after making 81 tackles, including a team-high 11 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, and playing a key role in the Lions’ national championship. He told reporters Tuesday he didn’t feel Alabama was the right fit for his style because “I like being the underdog.”
The “underdog” mentality will work for Autry this week. MSU is a 24-point underdog, according to the latest oddsmakers in Las Vegas.
Slay, a 6-foot-1 defensive back, signed twice with MSU (once out of high school and again after two years ICC) and chose MSU over the University of Kentucky, the University of Georgia, and the Oklahoma State University. Slay has four interceptions and is tied for the team lead with preseason All-America selection Johnthan Banks.
“It was about sticking with my commitment out of high school and it was a tough situation at first,” Slay said. “I knew when I came here it wasn’t going to stop the fact I had to work.”
According to Scout.com, the battle between the schools to get the state’s top junior college talent continues in the 2013 class. It lists Alabama and MSU as schools of interest for EMCC defensive back Justin Cox, EMCC running back Rodriguez Moore, and Pearl River C.C. running back Davante’ Bourque.
While Alabama only has two players from the Mississippi junior college ranks on its roster this season, the Crimson Tide haven’t had a problem replenishing their roster with those players. The biggest example was 390-pound nose tackle Terrance Cody. As a freshman at Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C., Cody had 48 tackles, two and a half sacks, and an interception. In his sophomore year, he had 31 tackles and three and a half sacks while anchoring a unit that was No. 1 in the state in rushing and total defense. Mississippi Gulf Coast finished the season 12-0 and was a NJCAA National Junior College Athletic Association co-national champion. The organization named Cody to the NJCAA All-American first team.
Despite concern about his size, Cody committed to Alabama and anchored the Crimson Tide’s 3-4 defense that helped the program win a national championship season in 2009.
Part of the attraction of Mississippi junior colleges to SEC schools is the competition those teams face every week. In the latest NJCAA football poll, five Mississippi junior colleges are ranked in the top 20.
“You are getting a guy (from Mississippi junior colleges] that is a little more mature, a guy that has played at a little bit better level of competition, especially if you can get him to come at midyear and they have a better chance to learn your system,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
For players, the biggest selling point is instant playing time at a high profile school. Former EMCC standout Quinton Dial, a 6-6, 304-pound defensive lineman, has been one of those impact defensive players for Alabama this season. He has eight tackles and one and a half tackles for loss in seven games as a third-down multi-use lineman.
Dial had three tackles and one for a loss last season in a 24-7 victory against MSU in Starkville.
“I think where you have a need, the most important thing about recruiting junior college guys to me is that they want to go someplace they can play,” Saban said. “If you have a need for them at that position, it is good for them and it is good for you. I think that it can really compliment the players that you have on your team.”