COLUMBIA, MS (WDAM) - Kevon "K.J." Cloyd loves football.
"It's not only a game for high school, but it's also about life," said Cloyd, who was selected as Columbia High School's "Player of the Pine Belt." "You take a bunch of different people together and give them the same goal and then try to accomplish that goal."
The Wildcats' goal this fall is to bounce back from a 3-7 finish in 2017.
First-year coach Chip Bilderback, who took over at Columbia after a successful, two-year run at Perry Central High School, said he's been impressed with what he's seen from his players this summer.
"It seems like it's been a sprint since December, January," Bilderback said. "We've got our staff in place and our kids have done a really good job. We've had a great summer, one of the best summers I've ever been involved in.
"We feel good with our commitment level, we feel good about the growth in the past six months, but we all know the season's going to come down to when the rubber hits the road and how our team responds to adversity and the day-to-day grind."
And 6-foot-2, 195-pound Cloyd has been the man in the middle of the Wildcats' summer work, just as he will be the man in the middle of the Wildcats' defense at linebacker.
"He looks just like what you would want in a football player, but more importantly, his intangibles, his character traits, are what separate him even more," Bilderback said of the senior. "He's a great kid. He's the first guy here, first row, smiling. He's the same guy every day, works extremely hard. He's just one of the leaders on our football team.
"We've had a lot of guys step up into that leadership role, but KJ, being a senior, has done a great job. From day one, he's been that guy, just taken the bull by the horns."
Last season, Cloyd finished with 51 tackles (37 solos) in seven games, forcing a fumble and recovering one.
He said he and his teammates have put the time in this summer to try and reverse the program's fortunes this fall.
"I'm just going to give myself to the team and then take whatever we get," Cloyd said. "Linebacker, it's the heart of your defense. But that's the thing about our team, we're all leaders and we're all stepping out on that field to do our best."
Bilderback acknowledged that Region 8-3A, which features defending 3A state champion Jefferson Davis County as well as traditional powers Seminary, West Marion and Tylertown, will provide a stern challenge.
"But we're not going to shy away from going in there and being competitive," he said. "We know what we signed up for, and where there is great opportunity, there is great reward.
"I believe our kids are very hungry. Just going off their day-to-day, their commitment level has been really high, their energy and excitement has been really good. A lot of that is because we're getting closer to the fall, but we want to come in and be competitive right away, make no bones about it. We've just got to get them going in the right direction."