ELLISVILLE, MS (WDAM) - Jones County Junior College will be tested quickly in the 2017 football season.
Head coach Steve Buckley's Bobcats open the season with a trip to No. 2 East Mississippi Community College. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Thursday at Sullivan-Windham Field in Scooba.
The Lions are 33-1 at home since Sullivan-Windham Field opened in 2011. The lone loss: a 47-46 decision to Copiah-Lincoln Community College in the 2012 Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges' semifinals. East Mississippi has won 23 straight contests at home.
"It will be a tremendous challenge for our program," Buckley said. "(EMCC head coach) Buddy (Stephens) has obviously cornered the market on junior college football over the last six years. They do a tremendous job with their program.
"It will be a great challenge for us to go to Scooba, but we are looking forward to it."
Last year, JCJC opened the season with a 27-25 victory over the top-ranked Lions. JCJC trailed 13-3 at the half, but stormed back to take a 27-19 lead. The Lions scored with 2:35 left, but the Bobcats stopped the two-point conversion play to seal the win.
EMCC dressed only 32 players in that game because of suspensions resulting from a season-ending fight in 2015 at Mississippi Delta.
"Last year is last year," Buckley said. "I don't know how many players they played and I don't know how many we played. It doesn't matter. This is 2017 and nobody cares about last year at this point. I'm sure it will be a hyped-up game and there will be some excitement in the air.
"I think JCJC will be ready to play."
After that loss, EMCC won 11 straight games en route to claiming the MACJC championship – its third state title in the past four years – and finished ranked No. 2 in the NJCAA.
The Bobcats enter this season with a more experienced team than last year. JCJC has 32 sophomores, including seven redshirt sophomores, on the roster.
"The thing that jumps out when you look at our depth chart is that we have one true freshman starting and that's Jonathan Haynes (Ray Brooks High School) at free safety," Buckley said. "He and Fred Peters (Columbia High School) are rotating with the No. 1's at free safety. Everybody else is either a sophomore or a redshirt freshman or redshirt sophomore.
"From an experience standpoint, if there is such a thing as experience at the junior college level, we are way ahead of the game from last year."
Most of JCJC's experience is on the offensive side of the ball. Buckley said the defense, especially the defensive line, must grow up quickly for the Bobcats to be successful.
"My greatest concern going into the season is up front on the defensive line," he said. "We lost four guys who signed Division I scholarships. Do we have potential there? Yes. But we have a lot of young kids who have never played a college snap there. This time last year, they were seniors in high school.
"The speed of the game worries me with them. But that maturation process has got to happen fast. That's just reality."
The Bobcats have a bit more experience at linebacker with Derric Hawthorn (Collins High School) and Tyrek Moody (Petal High School). In the secondary, JCJC has safety Deontai Williams (Jacksonville, Fla.) leading the way. Williams has committed to the University of Florida.
"We lost a couple of great players in the secondary, but I think we picked up a couple of great players," Buckley said. "It's easier for a skill position player to transition to the college level than it is for a defensive lineman. I feel very comfortable with our linebackers and our secondary right now."
Buckley said the Bobcat offense has a chance to be solid this season.
Currently, Chris Weaver (Bay Minette, Ala.) and Detric Hawthorn (Collins High School) are battling for the starting nod at quarterback.
"We feel very comfortable with Chris and Detric right now," he said. "They both bring something different to the table. They are both competitive and they are both leaders. They get along great and they are not selfish. I could not tell you who is going to start right now. We will have packages for both quarterbacks and both will play."
Kendall Parham (Oak Grove High School) was the team's leading receiver last year. Buckley expects a big year from Parham.
"Kendall is probably the most improved and transformed player in our football program right now," he said. "He is the first one to meetings, first one on the field and first one in the weightroom every day. He has really made a change for the better and he has a bright future."
Jones has loads of experience in the offensive line, including guards Nick Vines (Oak Grove High School) and Andrew Smith (Prentiss High School), tackles Colby Ragland (Raymond High School) and Dylan Desper (Madison Central High School) and centers Melvin Hollins (Forest Hill High School) and Calton Bakker (Vancleave High School).
"Offensively, our offensive line has a chance to be one of our strengths this year," Buckley said. "We have three guys returning there who played pretty much every snap last year."
In the backfield, the Bobcats can count on Ole Miss commitment Scott Phillips (South Jones High School), Rashaud Green (Bassfield High School) and DeShawn Smith (Brooksville, Fla.).
"We have three guys back that played a lot of snaps at running back," Buckley said. "We feel very good about all of them."
Buckley said all of the preparation is done for East Mississippi. It's now just a matter of teeing it up.
"I think we are ready to play somebody else right now," Buckley said. "I think we are ahead of where we were at this time last year in terms of x's and o's.
"It's just time to play and see where we are. We have the physical ability to be very, very good."
Thursday's game will air on www.jcjc.tv with Mark Easley and Chris Robinson on the call.
Next week, JCJC will host Mississippi Delta Community College at 7 p.m. on Sept. 7 in the annual "Hall of Fame" game.
East Mississippi hosts Mississippi Gulf Coast on Sept. 7.