SCOOBA — East Mississippi Community College defensive coordinator Cliff Collins watched highlights of the EMCC defenses from 2013 and 2014 during some of the darker days last season.
Collins was hired prior to the start of the 2017 campaign to help the Lions recapture their dominance on defense.
In his second season as coordinator, Collins has EMCC’s defense among the nation’s best.
No. 1 EMCC (11-0) will rely on that defense to have another big game at 7 p.m. Thursday against No. 2 Garden City C.C. (Kansas) (10-0) in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championship game at Carnie Hill Stadium in Pittsburg, Kansas. The game will be shown nationally on the CBS Sports Network. It can be heard locally on WFCA-FM (107.9).
Collins was a defensive assistant coach for Buddy Stephens’ first eight seasons as head coach. After a year away from the program, the chance to come back as a coordinator was too good to turn down.
“It was like getting a call from a friend,” Collins said. “He simply said we need to fix the defense. I knew what that meant. We have always taken pride in being a championship team on defense. That had been missing. Our job was to bring that spark back.”
Even though EMCC won its fourth national championship last season, the defense allowed 384.6 yards and 25.1 points per game. The Lions allowed 34 or more points four times, including two games of 60 or more.
“There were a lot of mix-ups,” EMCC sophomore defensive back JaQuez Akins said. “Everybody wasn’t on the same page. The coaches had a great plan. We just didn’t execute it like we should have. The whole defense was disappointed. As soon as you win a championship, it’s like none of that mattered. Still, it was a hollow feeling.
“For the returning players, we got after it (as soon as the national championship ended). We wanted to hold up our end of the deal. This season, mission accomplished. I am proud of this defense.”
EMCC won the 2013 and 2014 national championships on the strength of a dominating front four. The team had speed, power, and special physicality.
The 2014 squad set a school record with five shutouts in 12 victories. That squad allowed 198.1 yards and 7.6 ppg.
This season, EMCC is allowing 215.2 yards (fifth nationally) and 11.4 ppg. (first nationally). The Lions have held four opponents to less than 100 yards.
An opponent has outgained EMCC once in the last 19 games.
“Coach Collins loves two numbers, points (allowed) and yards (allowed),” EMCC freshman linebacker Fred Hervey said. “If we hold the other team under 100 yards, it’s going to be a good thing for us in film. The sophomores have done a great job of leading us. It just seems like we have more speed this year. Guys are flying to the ball and playing defense with passion. The older guys have told us the defense didn’t play with any intensity last year. We tried to change that from the first practice.”
EMCC only has two shutouts, but five opponents have been held to seven or fewer points. The most points allowed in a game is 26 (in a 56-26 victory against Itawamba C.C.).
“This team has more fight,” EMCC sophomore defensive lineman Everitt Cunningham said. “We are playing with an edge. You got to have a love. Sometimes last year, the love wasn’t there. We were embarrassed some. When you get embarrassed, you should step up your fight.”
Collins said a dominating defensive line was the key to the 2013 and 2014 national championship squads. Cunningham and his teammates haven’t disappointed in that regard this season. The Lions have 117 tackles for loss with 46 sacks. Last season, EMCC had 82 tackles for loss and 33 sacks. Cunningham has 13 sacks, while Eriq Kitchen is next with eight-and-a-half.
Kitchen, a sophomore defensive lineman from South Panola, also remembers film study from last season.
“It didn’t go well,” Kitchen said. “Even though we were winning games, we weren’t doing our part. There was so much untapped potential. This season, it was like we are going to go all out. If we make mistakes, we are going to make them at full speed. On defense, you have to trust the man next to you. Communication is key.”
The Lions also are forcing more turnovers. Collins said last season’s number (20 forced turnovers) wasn’t good enough for an elite defense. This season, the Lions have forced 31 turnovers (17 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries). Akins leads the way with four interceptions.
Hervey chuckled when told the squad’s latest turnover number.
“That’s got to be coach Collins’ third favorite number,” Hervey said. “I know it is.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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