Buddy Stephens isn’t a scientist, but he knows a litmus test when he sees one.
And East Mississippi Community College’s coach is well aware his defending national champion and top-ranked Lions have one looming when Pearl River Community College visits Sullivan-Windham Field at 2 p.m. today.
“We’re really excited to get going,” Stephens said. “I’m interested to see just how good we are. I want to see how we stack up.”
That hasn’t been a problem for EMCC since Stephens arrived five years ago. In his four previous season openers, EMCC has faced perennial MACJC South Division contenders Copiah-Lincoln and Mississippi Gulf Coast. Now add in Pearl River, and the Lions usually know where they fare by the end of the first game.
“That’s not real fun,” he said about the first-game showdowns. “But you do find out how good you are. It sets the tone for your year, whether good or bad.
“I can’t wait to see how good we are going to be, both in our athletic ability but also in our maturity and maturation. We’re excited.”
The Lions aren’t alone.
Coming off their first losing season in more than a decade, the Wildcats are eager to match-up with the No. 1 Lions and former PRCC assistants Stephens and William Jones, EMCC’s defensive coordinator.
“This is our opportunity to get back into the national spotlight,” PRCC coach Tim Hatten said in a school release. “East Mississippi is the highest-ranked team in the nation and it’s definitely a challenge for our coaching staff and our players.
“Both sides will learn a lot from this one. (EMCC) might not be as offensively and defensively savvy as they were a last year, but I guarantee you they’re an excellent football team that will ready to play.
“It’s going to be fun.”
As Pearl River looks to rebound from its 4-5 finish a year ago, the Wildcats turn over the reigns to their high-flying offense to Mississippi State transfer Dylan Favre, the nephew of former NFL great Brett Favre. Favre, was temporarily suspended from the Wildcat team two months ago, when he was arrested on drug charges by the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department.
Favre, though, rejoined the team for preseason workouts and has been named the Wildcats’ starting quarterback. The gunslinger led St. Stanislaus to the 2009 MHSAA Class 4A state championship title, as he set Mississippi high school records with 63 touchdown passes and 5,511 passing yards while playing for the Rock-A-Chaws that season.
“Dylan has all the tools to run our (spread) offense,” Hatten explained. "He’s got some mobility and has a good, accurate arm. He just knows the game of football and we’re expecting a lot of production from him.”
Stephens is also aware that Favre fits Pearl Rivers’ offense, and the challenge that awaits his Lion defense.
“He’s a Favre,” Stephens said. “I played with his uncle Scott and everybody has seen what his other uncle could do.
“He has the Favre name and he’s a good athlete that can run and is football smart. He’s got the pedigree and we’ve got to really work on defense to make sure he doesn’t throw for about 1,000 yards.”
Still with a defensive line that must replace three players that signed with BCS conference schools, Stephens is more worried about slowing down PRCC’s ground game, including Tennessee transfer Davante’ Bourque.
“We have to make Pearl River one dimensional, whether that’s trying to win the game throwing the ball or running the ball,” Stephens said. “In this league, it’s always been that you have to stop the run first. Last year, we went down there and run it 34 times and scored 43.
“Just because you are wide-open and throw it all over the place, you still have to be able to run the ball.”
The Lions should be able to do just that. While the offense lost NJCAA Player of the Year in record-setting quarterback Bo Wallace and its entire receiving corps, led by Oklahoma signee Lacoltan Bester, EMCC does return a deep crop of running backs. That group is led by Rodriguez Moore, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards a year ago.
His presence, along with backups Xavier Hogan and Billy Shed, should ease Jaquez Johnson into the starting quarterback role. Johnson, who redshirted last season at EMCC, beat out Laurel product Dontreall Pruitt to win the starting gig and is the perfect person to guide the Lions, according to Stephens.
“He’s done a good job,” Stephens said. “He’s a great kid and a great person. He’s the guy we want leading our team.
“He’s a quality person on and off the field and that’s the type of guy we want leading us.”
With both EMCC and East Central Community College making season debuts today, there are a number of area products that will be continuing their careers.
Making the defending national champion Lions roster are Meridian High products Shaquille Fluker, Jason Yarbor, Laderrick Roberts, Ricky Holt Jr., Tyler Stanley, E.J. Perry, Jacoby Eason and Lauren Jackson. The eight former Wildcats are joined by Southeast Lauderdale’s LeDarious Clark.
East Central’s team includes Philadelphia’s Georgio Grace, Neshoba Central’s Dustin Tubby, Kemper County’s Steven and Steffon Fuller, Northeast Lauderdale’s Ben Brooks, Calvary Christian’s Kyle Koch and Newton County’s Cole Ballard and Kalvin Smith.
Buddy Stephens isn’t a scientist, but he knows a litmus test when he sees one.
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