East Mississippi Community College's defensive improvement is quite simple.
The Lions, ranked No. 1 in the country and defending national champions, have a wealth of experience and even more talent. Those veteran playmakers have allowed EMCC to allow only 22 points in its first two games heading into tonight's final non-division matchup with Southwest Mississippi at 7 at John I. Hurst Stadium in Summit.
“I think we have a lot of experience and, obviously, we have talent,” EMCC defensive coordinator William Jones said. “We have 14 or 15 guys that played a full 12 games last season and they have been through the grind of a national championship season. They know how to play and how to play through pain.
“And we are very talented and our young guys are coming along.”
That defensive experience is led by the Lions' secondary where Justin Cox, Shaquille Fluker and Jason Yarbor all return after starting last season. Fluker, a Meridian High product and Georgia commit, recovered a fumble against Pearl River Community College in the opener and returned an interception for a touchdown against the Wildcats. Yarbor, also a former MHS star, also had an interception against Pearl River.
“William has always done a good job over there,” EMCC coach Buddy Stephens said. “But our linebacking corps is so good, our secondary is experienced and we have so much depth on the defensive line.
“We have done such a good job of recruiting and that's allowed us to really excel over there.”
The recruiting has been the biggest key, Jones said. With so much talent - highlighted by Fluker and Cox, who signed with Mississippi State prior to heading to EMCC, in the secondary, and defensive linemen Za'Darius Smith (a four-star recruit offered by MSU, Florida State, Miami and Texas A&M), Darious Cummings (a Florida State transfer), Jarran Reed (committed to North Carolina) and Maurice Bennett (who signed with California out of high school) and linebackers Christian Russell, a former North Carolina signee, and Quinn McClendon, who has been offered by Kentucky – Jones has been able to just let their natual ability take over.
“Our kids have been buying into the system,” he said. “And we've made the system simple enough that they can just go out there and play.”
Now, though, EMCC's defense gets its first test of how to overcome adversity. In last week's 51-7 rout of rival East Central Community College, defensive end Ricky Holt Jr., a former MHS star, tore his ACL and MCL and will miss the remainder of the season. Holt had eight total tackles, including two for a loss, and 1.5 sacks.
“That's huge,” Jones said. “Ole Miss was at the game and Ricky had been playing at a high enough level that there was a chance they'd offer.
“Now we've got to just take the next guy – Martavius Foster (a transfer from Tennessee State) – and move him up. We really stress during fall camp to having everybody ready three-deep.”
That is Stephens' philosophy as well, noting that another former Wildcat Lauren Jackson may slide back out to defensive end some as well.
“Losing Ricky is a big blow,” Stephens said. “But we've done a pretty good job of recruiting and they will have to step in and take his place.
“We have to pull up our britches and go to work.”
Jackson, who has five tackles, .5 sacks and a fumble recovery at defensive tackle, may see some time at end, but Jones said his goal is to leave the sophomore where he is.
“Lauren can play a lot of things for us,” he said. “He's moved inside because he's about 300 pounds now and we've got some guys that we can put out there with a little more mobility at end.
“He's inside because that's going to be his position at a four-year school and he's grown his way into being inside. But he's as veteran and seasoned a player as we have. Going back to high school, he's got more than 50 starts under his belt.”
Whether Jackson stays inside or slides out to end to help, Jones said the biggest key for EMCC against the 0-1 Bears, who had their season opener against Northwest Mississippi canceled due to Tropical Storm Isaac, will be sticking to its assignments. Southwest rushed for 138 yards and threw for 93 in a 22-10 loss to Itawamba last week.
“They have a good scheme,” Jones said. “They formation and field position you to get space and what I asked the guys (Tuesday) night was to just do your job. If we can do that, we should be successful. They will create space and if we just do our job and close fast, we'll be fine.”
That is also the Lions' goal on offense. After a sluggish start against Pearl River, EMCC has started to get its potent offense fired up, as freshman quarterback Quez Johnson has thrown for 482 yards and five touchdowns with just one interception. Sophomore Rodriguez Moore has added 183 yards and three touchdowns rushing, while Corey Smith is Johnson's top target with nine catches for 178 yards and two touchdowns. Still, EMCC struggled with turnovers a week ago as Johnson and backup Dontreall Pruitt each threw their first collegiate picks.
“We have to clean up our mistakes offensively,” Stephens said. “We have more guys playing and contributing on both sides of the ball and we have to continue to get more people involved in the game plan.
“The one thing I've seen through the years about Southwest, is that if you come ready to play they will beat your butt. We have to be ready to play. We can't be half-stepping it. When you go to Southwest, it doesn't matter your ranking, they are capable of beating your butt.”
East Mississippi Community College's defensive improvement is quite simple.
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