By Mike Christensen
On November 16, 2019, the Mississippi College football team left the field at Robinson-Hale Stadium riding a wave of positive momentum. The Choctaws had just beaten archrival Delta State for the first time since 1993, a resounding 37-13 victory, and finished their season with a 5-5 record, their best since returning to NCAA Division II. They went 5-0 at home.
Then came COVID-19. Routines were broken. Continuity went out the window. There was no spring practice in 2020, no fall season for D-II schools in 2020 and just one actual game for MC this past spring.
“It’s been a challenge for everyone, not just in sports,” Choctaws coach John Bland said via teleconference from the Gulf South Conference Media Day on August 3.
The opening of 2021 fall camp and the kickoff of the season on September 2 may bring a much-desired return to normalcy for the team. Can they get the 2019 mojo back?
“The players are excited, probably more so than ever before,” said Bland, entering his seventh season as the MC coach. “We had such a great run at home in 2019. We were hoping to take that momentum into 2020. Hopefully, we’ll keep up that tradition of playing well at home. It’ll be great to see fans out there again.”
MC opens at home on September 2, a Thursday night, against Albany State. The Gulf South opener is September 25 at home against West Alabama. It is, Bland says, “a brutal schedule,” featuring eight games against teams from the GSC, generally regarded as the nation’s best D-II league. The homecoming game is October 30 vs. West Florida, the 2019 national champion.
MC was picked to finish sixth in the eight-team league, but Bland is more optimistic than that projection.
“Every coach will say his goal is to win every game,” he said. “And I think we’re capable of winning every week. In 2019, I felt like we could’ve won every game except maybe Valdosta (a 42-17 loss). But we were in every other game. Our goal is to do that again, have a chance to win – if not win – every game.”
The Choctaws will again run a triple-option offense, unique to a conference in which most of the teams like to air it out. At the controls of the attack is sophomore quarterback DeAnte’ Smith-Moore. “He’s coming in with some experience,” Bland said of the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Smith-Moore, who played in five games in 2019 and started the 2021 spring game at Tarleton State.
Backing Smith, and expected to see some time, is Tytus Heard, a transfer from Holmes Community College. The QB in the triple-option will take some hits, so having a viable backup is important.
The top running backs are Jaylin Jones, a senior who rushed for 393 yards and six touchdowns in 2019, and transfer Cole Fagan, who led Division I Air Force in rushing in 2018 before he was dismissed from the program. He ran for 78 yards in the spring game.
“He’s a really good player, especially for this offense,” Bland said of Fagan.
A number of other players also will get their hands on the ball in MC’s scheme.
We’re not just a ground-and-pound offense,” Bland said. “We’re a physical offense, but we’ll distribute the ball like a spread. We’re just pitching it rather than throwing it.”
Senior Matt Toles and junior Blane Cannon are the stalwarts on an offensive line that Bland believes is the most talented and deepest he’s had at MC: “We’ve got a lot of guys who fit into our style.” Among them is newcomer Dedric Smith, a transfer who played in a similar style of offense at Southwest Mississippi CC.
On defense, MC put two players on the preseason All-GSC squad: lineman Fred Walls, a Memphis transfer in 2018, and linebacker Jonathan Jones, a former Southern Miss player.
“Fred is a powerful kid with good speed,” Bland said. “He’s a good leader. He’s quiet, leads by example. That’s probably the best kind of leader. I think he’ll do great things for us.”
Jones had 55 tackles, second on the team, in 2019.
“He made a lot of plays in 2019, all over the field,” Bland said. “He’s an impact player in our league.”
Another impact player is safety Josh Miller, a vocal leader on the Choctaws’ D.
“He knows when and when not to speak,” Bland said. “He knows when to get in somebody’s face. And he works hard. I’ve never seen anybody work harder over this time than Josh has.”
New to the defense is defensive back Braxton Hall, a redshirt freshman from Hoover, Alabama, who went through spring drills and raised eyebrows.
“Everybody will know his name by the end of the season,” Bland said.
It’s the start of the season that has everybody’s attention at the moment. It’s been a long time coming.