SCOOBA — Outside the film room of the East Mississippi Community College football offices, a countdown clock shows the time remaining before this season opener at Pearl River Community College.
While that game is set for 7 p.m. Aug. 29 in Poplarville, it feels like the opponent doesn’t matter. The important thing for the Lions is a chance to play again and a chance to atone for how last season ended.
“Last season didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” EMCC sophomore quarterback Dontreal Pruitt said. “That gave us all of the umph we needed about the upcoming season. The freshmen from last year’s team know that it is now time for them to step up. We can’t have the season end like it did last year again.”
Eighty-three players went through EMCC’s first practice Tuesday. With dorm rooms assigned and equipment handed out, all thoughts have turned toward PRCC. The official NJCAA preseason rankings are still upcoming. A preseason poll of the state’s junior college coaches has EMCC picked to win a fifth North Division championship in six seasons.
“The offseason may have been the most productive one we have had,” EMCC sixth-year coach Buddy Stephens said. “We have done a lot of team-building. I like the makeup of our team. I like the personalities. There is no doubt the talent is there. Now you put the pads on and start to form your identity. The quicker you find your identity, the better your season will become.”
EMCC will open the season with three games against the South Division. Those teams were rated in the final three spots in the preseason coaches rankings. If one uses the JC Gridwire.com preseason poll as a measuring stick, No. 6 EMCC won’t play a ranked opponent until it takes on Northwest Mississippi C.C. and Itawamba C.C. in the final two weeks of the season.
“(Last season’s ending) has been very motivational to us,” said EMCC sophomore running back Lakenderic Thomas, a former West Point High School standout. “As an athlete, you never want to lose, especially by a point. When you lose two games, each by a point, it gnaws at you the whole offseason, especially because I was on the field for the last play of the season. It motivates you. You are consumed with that one extra thing that will get you over the hump.”
EMCC won the 2011 national championship with a 12-0 ledger. The winning streak reached 20 straight after the team started 8-0 last season. The ending was quick and brutal, as EMCC lost to ICC 24-23 to end the regular season and to Copiah-Lincoln C.C. 47-46 in the first round of the playoffs the following week.
In the space of seven days, the Lions went from planning for a bowl and possible national championship repeat to seeing the season end.
“We don’t want to dwell (on last season), but we do want to learn from it,” Stephens said. “What I hope the kids took from it is you have to be prepared to play every snap of every game. You can’t take plays off, even if it is an extra-point try or a kick return. The special teams plays are just important as first-and-goal at the 3-yard line.
“We have to understand there are three parts to every game. We addressed that in the spring. We talked about how the season ended. Now that is in the rear-view mirror. It is full speed ahead. We have a tremendous amount of talent, and I really like this team a lot.”
Pruitt, who led Laurel High School to a Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A North State championship as a senior, threw for 247 yards and five touchdowns in relief of Quez Johnson last season.
“I really appreciated the confidence from the coaches last season,” Pruitt said. “They let me play a lot and we still ran the offense. Now I have to come out and make some of those plays I made at the end of games last year at the beginning of games this year.”
Thomas is slated to be the Lions’ marquee back. He will replace Rodriguez Moore, who ran for 902 yards and 11 touchdowns last season before moving on to the University of Cincinnati.
“(Thomas) has established himself as a leader in every facet of the program,” Stephens said. “He is a leader in the weight room, practice field, and classroom. He is a very special talent, and people are going to see that this year.”
Arkansas State University transfer Todd Mays and former Starkville High standout Preston Baker will join Thomas in the backfield. Mays quarterbacked Olive Branch High before signing with ASU. He will share time with Pruitt there at quarterback.
On defense, the Lions are breaking in a new coordinator, Jordan Lesley, and a new defensive line coach, DeCarlos Holmes. It is the first coordinator change in Stephens’ six seasons as head coach.
“There will not be a lot of changes,” said EMCC sophomore free safety Byerson Cockrell, who played at Columbus High and is 100 percent after a late-season injury a year ago. “We will still be that physical, fly-to-the-football defense we have always been. When the ball is snapped, the coaches want each of us where it is. Some of the technique is different. Some of the plays are different. But, in the end, you will see the same thing.
“Each day that passes, we are more excited about the season. We have to make up for last year. We can’t wait to get started on that.”
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.