ELLISVILLE, MS (WDAM) - Jones County Junior College offensive line coach Grant Garner has confidence in his group heading into the 2017 season.
"I think we have the potential to control games, be really good and keep everybody on the team clean," he said. "We are very excited about the season."
The Bobcats feature six sophomores returning with playing experience from 2016. They lost starting tackles Kelby Wickline and Khadedryck Todd, who signed with the West Virginia University and University of North Alabama, respectively.
Leading the way among the returners at left tackle is 6-foot-5, 281-pound Colby Ragland (Raymond High School). Ragland made the move from defense last year.
"Colby is a joy to coach," Garner said. "He's hungry to learn and is very athletic. He came over from the defensive line last year. He just keeps getting better each day and by the end of the season, we will look up and he will be a completely different player in a good way."
Six-four, 311-pound Nick Vines (Oak Grove High School) is solid at left guard. Vines flips over from right guard, where he played last year.
"Nick is extremely steady and is a load up the middle," Garner said. "He does a great job with his hands and has a good base. He is a powerful kid and plays really smart. I feel great about having Nick anchoring our line in the middle."
Two players are vying for the starting center job, including 5-11, 313-pound Melvin Hollins (Forest Hill High School) and 6-3, 287-pound Cal Bakker (Vancleave High School). Both will see substantial playing time this fall.
"Whoever wins the job will do a great job," Garner said. "It's just a matter of who rises to the top. They are smart kids and they have athleticism. They have the 'want to' and I feel great about both of those guys."
Last year's starting center, 6-1, 285-pound Andrew Smith (Prentiss High School), has moved to right guard. Smith played tight end in high school, so he is still learning the nuances of the offensive line.
"Andrew has one of the best first steps I've ever been around," Garner said. "He is extremely explosive and quick. He does a great job of playing hard. We just need him to finish to the whistle every snap. He has a chance to be really good."
Topping the depth chart at right tackle is 6-4, 277-pound Dylan Desper (Madison Central High School). Desper played a lot of snaps in 2016.
"Dylan is a versatile guy," Garner said. "He's athletic and he's long and he can really run. We feel really good about him holding it down at right tackle."
The three remaining backup linemen are all true freshmen: Thaddeus King (Ocean Springs High Schoo;l), Kordell Watts (Vicksburg High School) and Malcom Miller (Warren Central High School).
The 6-3, 260-pound King is working at right tackle.
"Thaddeus is extremely athletic and has great feet," Garner said. "He just needs to continue to put on some muscle and gain a little weight. He needs to figure out how to use his hands a little better, but he has a chance to be really, really good."
The 6-4, 289-pound Watts is at right guard.
"Kordell is a smart player and does a nice job," Garner said. "He is extremely long and has huge hands. He plays with a good base as well. He's really hungry to learn. He soaks up what I'm teaching and applies it."
The 6-3, 302-pound Miller is at left guard.
"Physically, I think Malcolm is the one of the most gifted kids we have," Garner said. "He's a load. He has a great base and is physical. We just have to get him learning the plays and getting all of that athleticism going in the right direction. Once he figures it out, he can be really special."
Garner said he believes this group is well ahead of the game from 2016.
"This group is fantastic," he said. "As a whole, I think we are better at every position, except for maybe left tackle. That's not to say Colby is not a good player, but last year, Kelby was a special talent. But as a whole, I feel like we are leaders on the team. They come to work every day and I think they lead by example.
"We just have to get them to talk more and bring guys along with them. I feel like they can be the backbone of the team. I can't say enough good things about what they've done to this point. I think they will continue to keep working and getting better. They are great kids, who happen to be really good football players."
Garner said the six sophomores have done a tremendous job of leading the newcomers.
"It's been great to see older guys constantly coaching the younger guys," he said. "I think that's been the biggest difference from this year to last year – it's how much ownership and pride the older guys are taking in the whole unit and being coaches on the field."
The Bobcats open the season at 7 p.m. on Aug. 31 at No. 2 East Mississippi Community College.