SCOOBA – Delayed two days because of the effects of Hurricane Isaac, top-ranked East Mississippi Community College's possible defense of last year's school-first NJCAA National Championship begins Saturday afternoon against visiting Pearl River Community College on the Scooba campus. Kickoff for Saturday's non-division season opener is set for 2 p.m. at EMCC's Sullivan-Windham Field.
EMCC's football opener is slated to begin with a tribute to military personnel, as they and their immediate families will be admitted into the game free of charge with valid ID. With plans for a 'white-out' experience for fans in attendance, school officials are also encouraging fans to wear white to Saturday's EMCC-PRCC contest.
Riding a 12-game overall winning streak as a result of last year's first-ever undefeated season in school history while also owning a 12-game win string in regular-season play dating back to 2010, fifth-year head coach Buddy Stephens' EMCC Lions enter the 2012 campaign preseason ranked for the fourth straight year. Along with this year's school-first No. 1 preseason ranking, EMCC kicked off prior football seasons rated sixth nationally in 2009, seventh the following year and 16th a season ago.
Saturday's season opener from Scooba will be broadcast live by WFCA-FM radio (107.9), out of French Camp, with Jason Crowder and Glen Beard set to describe the play-by-play action and John Lyle Briggs serving as the Lions' sideline reporter. The live video-streamed broadcast will be available at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/emcc-football and can be accessed through EMCC's athletics website - http://athletics.eastms.edu. An alternate audio stream of the radio broadcast will also be available by logging onto www.wfcafm108.com. In addition, the contest will be featured as the JUCO Weekly Game of the Week with game highlights and post-game interviews available at www.jucoweekly.org.
A year removed from their record-setting offensive season with 2011 NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year and Ole Miss signee Bo Wallace under center, the EMCC Lions look to feature many new faces on the offensive side of the ball. Former Starkville High School signal-caller Quez Johnson figures to get the start at quarterback for the Lions with standout freshman Dontreal Pruitt, of Laurel High School, also available for action. Highlighted by the arrival of former Ole Miss Rebel and consensus prep All-American Nick Brassell, from South Panola High School, EMCC's new-look receiving corps is comprised of three transfers. At the other outside receiver position, Corey Smith started a year ago for Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College's fourth-ranked, undefeated team but made his way south from his native Akron, Ohio after GRCC dropped its football program. Also with SEC connections, former South Carolina signee Martay Mattox, of Athens, Ga., is also challenging for a starting receiver spot with the Lions.
Returning from last year's potent offensive unit, sophomore running back Rodriguez Moore ranked fourth nationally as a freshman with 1,303 rushing yards for the Lions. The Bastrop, La., native was also EMCC's fifth-leading receiver a year ago with 44 catches coming out of the backfield.
Defensively, EMCC will look to fill the void of losing three standout defensive linemen to BCS programs in NJCAA All-American Denico Autry (Mississippi State), Brandon Moore (Texas) and Damien Jacobs (Florida). Returning veterans Za'Darius Smith (Greenville, Ala.) and Lauren Jackson, one of eight Meridian High School products on this year's EMCC squad, are expected to lead the Lions' stopper unit up front. An experienced defensive secondary will be anchored by former Mississippi State signee Justin Cox, of West Point High School, along with Meridian High alums Shaquille Fluker and Jason Yarbor.
On the heels of collecting 2011 National Junior College Football Coach of the Year honors from the American Community College Football Coaches Association and the American Football Monthly coaches' publication, Stephens owns a four-year EMCC head coaching record of 36-8 (.818) overall and 22-2 (.917) in division play since taking over the Lions' program in December 2007. In addition to last year's school-first NJCAA National Championship and a second MACJC State/NJCAA Region 23 title in three years, EMCC has claimed three MACJC North Division regular-season crowns in the four years he's been at the helm in Scooba.
Stephens, a two-year letterman (1987-88) as an offensive lineman for Pearl River CC before moving on to Delta State, will be facing his junior college alma mater for the fourth time on the gridiron since leaving Poplarville in 2007 following his seven-year stint (2001-07) as the Wildcats' co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Stephens and current EMCC associate head coach/defensive coordinator William Jones previously served as assistant coaches on Tim Hatten's Pearl River staff that directed the Wildcats to four consecutive MACJC state football championships and four straight top five national finishes (2003-06), including an NJCAA national title in 2004.
With Hatten entering his 11th season at the PRCC helm, the Wildcats are looking to rebound from their first losing season (4-5) on the gridiron in over a decade. Expected to lead Pearl River on offense this season will be Mississippi State transfer quarterback Dylan Favre, nephew of retired NFL legend Brett Favre, who prepped at St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis.
The Lions and Wildcats have met three times on the gridiron since Stephens was hired away from the Poplarville-based school in 2007. A year ago during Pearl River's homecoming contest, visiting third-ranked EMCC scored three unanswered second-quarter touchdowns en route to claiming a 41-17 victory over PRCC. Four passing touchdowns from Wallace and 105 rushing yards by Moore paced the visitors offensively, while the Lions' defense helped the cause by picking off four Pearl River pass attempts. East Mississippi and Pearl River previously split a pair of games played at EMCC's old Sullivan-Windham Field during the 2008 and 2010 seasons. Most recently, the 2010 Lions earned a 42-36 homecoming victory over the Wildcats. Two years prior, visiting Pearl River ended EMCC's 8-2 campaign by posting a 42-35 playoff win in the MACJC State Semifinals played in Scooba.