Editor’s Note: The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) rankings will be released at noon today. For an update, follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
FULTON — Itawamba Community College sophomore wide receiver Jamel Thomas knows that look.
After all, Thomas and ICC sophomore quarterback Spencer Unruh played together for three seasons with the Caledonia High School football team.
“When (Unruh) is playing with confidence, he is hard to stop,” Thomas said. “You can sense in the huddle when he is ready to make something special happen. In high school, he beat people with his legs. Now, he is being asked to do more with his arm. He is learning on how to become a complete quarterback.”
Thomas and Unruh will be key parts of the offense when No. 14 ICC (1-1) takes on No. 1 East Mississippi C.C. (2-0) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Eaton Field in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division opener.
Thomas began his high school playing career as a defensive back. By the time that part of his career ended, he was an all-region wide receiver. As a senior, Thomas had 63 catches for 1,093 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Thomas and Unruh helped move Caledonia up the ranks in Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 4A competition. Now, the duo is trying to help ICC make inroads in the MACJC.
“Everybody in this league can play,” Thomas said. “There is no weak opponent. No team has a weak link. Each team has players fighting to play on the next level. Every Thursday night is a battle. You have to be ready to compete.”
ICC opened the regular season with a 34-30 win at Pearl River C.C. After moving up two spots in the national rankings, ICC lost to East Central C.C. 34-28 in its home opener.
Last season, four of ICC’s first five games were decided by four points or less. Unfortunately, half of those four games were losses and ICC missed the playoffs despite a 5-1 record in North Division play.
“The main goal is to make the playoffs,” Thomas said. “That is what everybody is working for. From the first practice, we have talked about making sure everything is done by each player to get us back in the postseason. When we are playing well, we feel like we can compete with anybody.”
Unruh and Clark Mills split time at quarterback against East Central. Unruh was 13-for-29 for 132 yards and a touchdown. Mills, a freshman from North Pontotoc, was 10-for-19 for 118 yards and a touchdown.
Laderrick Bell, a freshman from Anniston, Alabama, also threw three passes.
“The quarterback competition has been good,” ICC coach Sean Cannon said. “Each quarterback brings something different to the table. The thing that stands out about these three players is that each of them is the first to practice, first to the weight room. They each excel in the classroom. The quarterback is the leader. Each of them is great at that.”
Thomas leads the team with 11 receptions for 144 yards. His touchdown was a 14-yard catch from Mills.
“Jamel has made himself one of the best receivers in the league,” ICC offensive coordinator Chad Cook said. “With sophomores, you see that leadership switch turn on. You see them take control of their own game and also take control of the team. We have some talented receivers and they look at Jamel to lead.”
ICC players and coaches are aware that the games matter more starting Thursday when division play begins. ICC will look to take down the nation’s top-ranked team for the first time since pulling a 24-23 upset in Fulton in 2012.
EMCC has won five straight in the series. However, many of the games have been close, including a 48-24 victory by EMCC in Scooba.
“As an offense, it’s about consistency,” Thomas said. “We have had to count on several new guys this year. It’s coming together at times. To beat the best teams in the league and to climb the rankings ourselves, we have to be great on a regular basis.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.