SCOOBA — In football, there can only be one player playing the quarterback position at a time.
However, do not tell that to East Mississippi Community College defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley.
Lesley has his own quarterback on the defensive side of the ball. Sophomore linebacker Christian Russell coordinates the Lions defensive efforts. He brings the huddle leadership and player-as-coach expertise to the field and helps make things go on that side of the ball.
“When you start a defense with a player like Christian Russell, you have a good start,” said Lesley, who is in his first season at EMCC. “Since I am new to the program, I have put a lot on his shoulders. You can tell he is a natural-born leader. He has tremendous football instincts and knows just what our team needs.”
Russell and the rest of the Lions moved up to fifth in this week’s NJCAA Top 20. EMCC will play its home opener at 7 Thursday night when arch-rival East Central Community College comes to Sullivan-Windham Field.
It is the second of three straight South Division games for the Lions. In its season opener, EMCC rolled over Pearl River Community College 49-6 in Poplarville.
“The sky is the limit for this defense,” said Russell, who is from Fayetteville, N.C. “We had a great year (defensively) last year. Now, our job is to pick up where that unit left off. We have all the pieces. It is just a matter of working hard and reaching our potential.”
Last season, EMCC rode a salty defense to an 8-2 final record. Once rated as high as No. 1 in the nation a year ago, the Lions gave up less than seven points per game through their first seven games. The end though was not kind as Northwest Mississippi Community College went for 49, Itawamba Community College followed with 24 and Copiah-Lincoln tallied 47 in the opening round of the MACJC state playoffs.
“We won 20 games in a row and I think we may have taken a few things for granted,” Russell said. “It is a grind every week in this league. You have to bring your A-game. You have to play well. We know that on any Thursday night, we can shut out an opponent. At the same time, we know if we don’t step it up, we can get beat. I saw a different mind-set in off-season workouts. The program here got a ring in 2011 and we badly want to prove that we can do that again.”
In the season opener, Russell had a hand in a defensive-dominating performance. A.J. Stamps played the lead role though, as he intercepted two passes, including a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. The Lions forced four takeaways.
“We feel like we can force four or five takeaways every time we play,” Russell said. “The main thing about the defense is speed. We were fast last year, and we have gotten even faster this year. Coach Lesley has not made a lot of changes to the defense. He just wants us to play hard and he wants us to do everything we are doing at full-speed.”
In 2012, Russell led the team with 75 total tackles, including three sacks and a team-best four fumble recoveries. For most, speed of the game is a major adjustment. Instead, head coach Buddy Stephens found a player ready to do his part. He also found a player ready to lead and ready to not only be coached but to help coach the others around him.
“Christian is a big-time play-maker,” Stephens said. “The best thing about him is his eagerness to make sure the player next to him is in a position to make a big play. He has an enthusiasm about what he does that rubs off on the others.”
In junior college football, the shutout is few and far between. In a pass-happy league, defensive success is measured by holding teams to 20 or fewer points and below average total yardage marks. The same can not be said at EMCC, where a shutout is expected on a weekly basis. The brand of physical football played by the Lions is a rarity, which pays dividends.
“It helps that we go up against one of the best offenses in the nation every day in practice,” Russell said. “For some teams, defense is not that big a deal. They want to bend, not break. However, we try to bring it on every offensive possession. Every team in this league has some great skill players, so the one-on-one challenge within the game is great. Fortunately, we have made a name for ourselves with the defense that we play.
“It’s a new year and guys have really bought in. We have to keep it up to get where we want to go.”
EMCC has won eight straight regular-season games against the South Division, including a 51-7 win over East Central last season in Decatur.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.