Choctaws football optimistic about season
By Mike Christensen
At first blush, there would appear to be reason for concern at Mississippi College as it heads into the 2017 football season.
The dual-threat starting quarterback from last year is gone, as is the wide receiver some believed to be the best in the conference. Eight other starters are missing, too, from a team that went 3-7, gave up a lot of points on defense and faces a schedule with just four home games.
MC coach John Bland, entering his fourth season in Clinton, isn’t sounding any alarms. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“We’ve got more depth and quality talent at every position now than we’ve had before,” Bland said. “We’re a little thinner than we’d like to be here and there, but I’m feeling pretty good about it.”
The Choctaws embark on their second season as a full-fledged NCAA Division II program with a roster that is close to having the maximum allotment of scholarships.
“We’ve built it up the right way,” Bland said. “We’ll match up better with the other teams in our league. We’ve leveled the playing field there somewhat.”
The next step is getting results on the scoreboard. In three seasons against Gulf South Conference opponents, the Choctaws have only one victory, a 32-0 win over Shorter last November. MC lost close games last season to GSC powers Valdosta State and West Georgia, which was ranked No. 1 in D-II at one stage of the season.
It’s a tough league, and in the 2017 preseason poll, GSC coaches ranked MC eighth among the nine teams.
The Choctaws reported for physicals on August 5, attended position meetings on August 6 and started two-a-day practices on August 7. The team’s first full scrimmage is set for Saturday (August 19) at 8 p.m. as part of Choctaw Fanfare, with all MC fans are invited to attend.
The Choctaws return four starters and eighteen total lettermen on offense and eight starters and twenty-three lettermen on defense. Three players were named to the preseason All-GSC team: tight end Arik Washington, defensive back Chris Manning and punter Matthew Turcotte.
Much of the focus in camp may be on the quarterback competition. Sharone Wright, the team’s top rusher and passer in 2016, is gone. The top returning QB is junior Khiran Williams, who played in five games, starting one, and threw for 449 yards and a couple of scores. Entering the picture in the spring was transfer Ty Jobe, formerly of Tennessee Tech.
Bland said he likes what both of them bring to the field in terms of talent and smarts.
Redshirt freshman Aaron Feazelle is waiting in the wings.
“I think we’ll be as good as we’ve been at quarterback,” Bland said. “Wright did a great job for us after we moved him from DB, but we’re more experienced and talented as a group there than we were last year.”
Bland also lauds the depth that has been built on the offensive line, where three starters return.
Leading receiver Marcel Newson is gone from the spread option-style offense that averaged 23 points per game, but Bland said there is still a lot of talent in the receiving corps.
Chakel Gates is the top returning wideout with 20 catches for 226 yards in 2016; he might be in line for a bigger role with Newson gone. Washington, the All-GSC pick, caught 11 passes for 195 yards last year. Among the newcomers are a couple of intriguing juco transfers: 6-foot-7 Xavion Dillon from Southwest Mississippi and 5-8 Ja’Moz Mark from East Mississippi.
Back at running back is Alizee Chubbs, a 5-foot-9, 205-pound junior who rushed for 341 yards, averaging 4.5 a pop, with three TDs.
Two D-I transfers might contribute as skill players on offense, wideout Chad Cook from Southern Miss and running back Tiberias Lampkin from Mississippi State.
Leading the defensive returnees are a trio of DBs: Manning (70 tackles, three interceptions), Da’Quan Lewis (46 tackles) and Steven Bradley (44 tackles in seven games). Also back in the secondary is Reggie Bennett, a starter in 2014 and ’15 who sat out last season, while transfers Blake Miller (Snow College) and Rudie Frye (Southeast Missouri) have been added to the mix.
Mike Hall, who had 12 tackles for a loss among his 43 stops, returns at linebacker, and there are a couple of starters back on the D-line: Kris Reliford and Chris Humphries.
MC’s 3-3-5 defense allowed 33.9 points a game in 2016, yielding 24 passing touchdowns and 22 rushing scores.
“I think we’re improved in all areas on defense,” Bland said. “We can cover [against the passing game], and I think we’ll get more pressure on the passer. We’ve brought in some kids who’ll add to the talent we’ve already got at linebacker and on the defensive line. We ought to be pretty good.”
Newcomers who could emerge among the front six on defense include linemen Jordan Barrett (EMCC) and Preston Reed (Tennessee Tech) and linebackers Colton Magee (Copiah-Lincoln CC), Justin Stewart (Gulf Coast CC) and Trey Thompson (Tennessee Tech).
On special teams, Turcotte averaged 42.6 yards per punt, and place-kicker Matt Brasher hit five field goals (out of seven attempts) in 2016, including a last-second game-winner against Cumberland University. He scored 34 points all told.
The schedule does the Choctaws no favors. MC will begin the season with three away from home, starting in Atlanta on August 31 (a Thursday) against Clark Atlanta, an NCAA Division II school in the SIAC. The first conference game is at West Alabama on September 16.
The home opener is September 23 against GSC foe Florida Tech, and rival Delta State comes to Robinson-Hale Stadium the next Saturday. The Statesmen whipped the Choctaws 61-31 last year.
“The big challenge is the three road games to start,” Bland said. “After that, the schedule balances out. We want to get through those first three with some success.”
Bland’s career record as a head coach is 81-50. His three-year record at MC is 6-24. He said he knew it would take time to remake the team from a D-III program to one that could compete in the GSC. But the Choctaws may be about to turn that corner.
“After seeing where we were three years ago,” Bland said, “I’d say we’re pretty close to where we wanted to be by this time.”