After hearing the question, Columbus football coach Joshua Pulphus let out a long, loud whistle that echoes through the hallway of the team’s field house.
It’s not hard to tell how much Pulphus thinks of the Falcons’ previous senior class.
“Whew, that’s a lot of production,” the fourth-year head coach said. “That’s a lot of experience, a lot of ballgames we lost. We’re going to miss them.”
The departure of a strong corps of seniors leaves Columbus with a young and small — yet talented — team as the Falcons enter the 2022 season.
“The strength of our team this year is not experience but athleticism,” Pulphus said. “We’re not the biggest team. We’re pretty small, so we’re going to rely on our athleticism to keep us in a lot of ballgames.”
The list of players the Falcons graduated is impressive. Defensive linemen Isaiah Harris and Deitrick McCray signed with local community colleges. Running back Tawoon Troop and linebacker/kicker Darion Mosley did the same, as did defensive backs Elijah Short IV and Michael Mosley. Linebacker Jamarion Moody, who racked up more than 100 tackles in 2021, graduated as well.
Plenty of other Columbus players moved on, too, leaving a much less battle-tested roster to begin 2022.
“I’m going to miss them because that was a good class right there,” senior lineman Chris Martin said. “I feel like we really needed them.”
The Falcons will have to make do with what they have in 2022, and what they have is still quite a bit.
Senior defenders Hemyar Nagi and Antonio O’Neal return. So do two-way linemen in Martin and senior Tyrese Erby. Khristian Watson leads the Falcons’ wide receiver corps, while a pair of talented players will battle it out at quarterback.
Pulphus said junior Jaquavious Bankhead and sophomore Darius Miller are competing for the starting job vacated by graduated senior Omari Williams.
Watson praised Bankhead’s decision-making and accuracy with the football.
“He’s going to be one of the best quarterbacks to come through here,” the wide receiver predicted.
Erby, meanwhile, mentioned senior Tyrie Sherrod-Payne — known as “T Payne” — as another potential candidate at signal-caller.
“We’ve got a deep ball guy (Bankhead),” Erby said. “We’ve got a guy who can do it all (Payne). We’ve got guys.”
Not all of them are seniors, either. Pulphus said junior Reginald Wilkins is set to start at running back, having claimed the starting job with a strong offseason showing.
Wilkins is one of several young Falcons who have approached the maturation process the right way, according to his coach.
“We lost a lot of production last year, but we have a good group of younger guys who actually sat back and watched and paid attention and saw how those guys carried the torch,” Pulphus said. “We’ve been excited to see them grow, but we’ve also seen them learn from the (things) the previous group did wrong. It’s good to see them mature in the process of all that.”
Now it’s time to see how the Falcons stack up against a perpetually tough schedule both in and out of MHSAA Class 5A, Region 1. Columbus’ non-district opponents include three Class 6A teams — Starkville, Southaven and Tupelo — as well as perennial Class 4A contender Louisville.
Pulphus said the Falcons’ record in the four-game stretch doesn’t matter, but the experience they’ll gain will — a lesson his players seem to have taken to heart.
“If you play the best people in the state, it makes you better,” Watson said. “It makes you get better. It makes you win championships along the way.”
Columbus, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2015, has a ways to go in that regard. But there are encouraging signs so far, particularly when it comes to jump-starting an offense that has been sluggish for years.
“I know we’ve got the fastest team in the state for sure,” Erby said. “ … We’ve got pretty much the best O-line I’ve ever seen here. I guarantee we’re going to be running the ball and passing really well.”
And even despite the losses on the other side of the ball, Erby and the Falcons seemed optimistic about keeping opponents off the board in 2022.
“I feel like Columbus High has always been known for their defense, so we’re going to do what we’re going to do when it’s time,” he said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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