Booneville, Miss. - The expectations are high for the Northeast Mississippi Community College football team as it enters its 58th season of competition in the fall of 2017.
The Tigers received their highest preseason ranking in program history at No. 9 when the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) released its initial poll of the year in mid-August.
Northeast gained this recognition on the strength of a stellar 2016 campaign that featured six wins, including a four-game winning streak, and 20 players that committed to continue their careers at four-year institutions.
But with success at the junior college level comes roster turnover. That will prove true for the Tigers this season as they break in at least 35 freshmen out of their 55 player total allotment.
"We've got a lot of new faces, basically a whole new football team," said Northeast head coach Greg Davis. "But the kids came in and they're excited. I feel like we've got a solid group and some key players that are very talented. They're motivated and ready to play."
The newness reaches into the coaching staff on the offensive side of the pigskin. Doug Saylor from Colorado State University was hired as the Tigers' offensive coordinator and former University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) wide receiver Vince Sanders came aboard to instruct his one-time position.
Saylor's first task at Northeast is to break in a new quarterback. That job was made much easier after the Tigers signed talented signal caller Zac Oden from the neighboring Yellowhammer State.
Oden was an Alabama Sports Writers Association (ASWA) Class 3A All-State selection and was named to the all-area team by The Birmingham News following a senior season at Montevallo (Ala.) High School in which he threw for 3,210 yards and 32 touchdowns compared to only six interceptions.
"Zac's a talented young man with a strong arm," Davis said. "He's very fun to be around. He's taken the grasp of the reins so to speak. He's going to really get out there and lead our team."
Oden's burden in the backfield will be lightened greatly by the return of Kenzie Phillips from Oxford. He was the Tigers' top rusher as a freshman with a team-high 492 yards on 86 touches with five touchdowns.
Phillips will be joined by a trio of sensational running backs in Jalen Cobbs of Corinth High School, Zykeris Mosley from Independence High School and Karleke Oliver of Hernando High School. Each of them ran for over 800 yards during their senior campaigns.
"Kenzie has to be a leader and a guy that's going to take the load obviously because he's a talented young man," said Davis. "He had a great season last year and we're expecting the same out of him.
"Karleke is a very similar style running back as Kenzie. He's very powerful, but he's got deceptive speed. Jalen is a little bit quicker and he's done well. Zykeris is an all-around speedster. He's got some good cuts and athletic ability."
Northeast must essentially replace its entire group of receivers. The lone exception to that is New Orleans, La., native Toreano Miner, who made 17 catches for 213 yards with two touchdowns one year ago.
However, the Tigers bolstered their ranks with the addition of Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) transfer Harland Howell. He is a three-star athlete according to recruiting service 247Sports who was part of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Super 75 while at Wheeler (Ga.) High School.
Beau Lee of Kossuth High School, Kortlon Hubbard from Forest Hill High School and Hernando's O.D. Wooten are also among the freshmen wideouts. Lee and Wooten were the top receivers for their respective squads while Hubbard scored six times as a senior.
"Toreano is going to be better this year with his experience. I'm looking forward to having him go out there and compete," Davis said. "We've got a huge receiving corps overall. They all bring different things to the table."
The tight end position is comprised solely of young men from Hernando in returners Bo Canton and Ross Painter plus newcomer Caleb Napper. Both Canton and Painter are excellent blockers that can also catch passes when called upon.
"Bo's more of your thumper, aggressive tight end," said Davis. "Ross is a little more flexible as far as you can move him into the slot as a receiver. Caleb is kinda the best of both worlds because he's physical and can stretch the field."
Northeast reloaded on the offensive line after sending three starters from last year to four-year universities. Highly prized prospects Quan Stokes and Matthew Trehern will fill those slots lost due to graduation.
Stokes, who is a two-star guard, won a national championship as a junior at Colquitt County (Ga.) High School. Trehern of Saraland, Ala., also earned two stars and was originally committed to the University of South Alabama.
Hernando natives Kelton Edwards and Jake Wilcox plus Philadelphia High School products Micheal Cameron and Trey Hunt all gained invaluable playing time during the previous campaign. They will play a major role in the Tigers' rotation once again.
"I think that we're a solid group that's probably as good as what we were a year ago," Davis said. "We've just got to gel and get that little bit of continuity. It's a physical group that's pretty large."
Northeast's staff remained intact defensively. Kenny Jackson coaches the line, Dustin Jones is in control of the linebackers and former National Football League (NFL) standout Kareem Moore takes charge of the defensive backs.
Peyton McMahon and Johnathon Edwards are back for their sophomore campaigns in the City of Hospitality and should prove to be two critical components for the Tigers.
McMahon is the leading returning tackler for Northeast with 38 stops last season. The DeSoto Central High School graduate also led the Tigers with five takeaways, including four fumble recoveries, plus a block of an extra point attempt.
Philadelphia's Edwards has already attracted offers this offseason from Big 12 Conference members the University of Colorado and West Virginia University. He tallied 37 tackles, four pass break ups and three interceptions for Northeast.
"Peyton's a guy that does nothing wrong," said Davis. "He sometimes gets mismatched, but he's going to get the best of you because you're going to make a mistake and he's going to make you pay for it. He's solid as can be.
"Johnathon is a physical hitter and leader. He's a really smart football player. I'm really excited to see him progress this year and hopefully he can move forward and keep getting better."
Kylin Washington from Fort Smith, Ark., will be a big boost for the Tigers' youthful defensive line. He transferred from Eastern Illinois University and was the No. 37 overall prospect in Arkansas for the class of 2015.
Freshmen Tre'Vas Chambers and Antonio Moultrie are also big impact linemen. Chambers was a two-time all-district selection out of Hahnville, La., while Moultrie from Pensacola, Fla., is a two-star defensive end that was once committed to the University of Southern Mississippi.
Complimenting those three out-of-state athletes is the Shannon High School duo of J.T. Loving and Vincent McIntosh plus North Pontotoc High School's Jaylon Simpson.
Aligning with McMahon at linebacker are gifted newcomers Quentin Frazier of Hernando and Montgomery, Ala., product Sam Williams. Zeke Liggins, who is the cousin of former Northeast quarterback and Ole Miss athlete Jeremy Liggins, is a key piece to the puzzle at defensive back.
Callaway High School alumnus Jamal Bolden, Jeremiah Boyd from Morton, Terrance Edgeston of Falkner, Damarius Ray of Greenwood and Provine High School's Juwan Taylor are part of a dynamic tandem of safeties.
Johnathan Jones is a three-star prospect from Bossier City, La., and should provide an instant lift at the cornerback position. Baldwyn's Ovurton Gates has been a pleasant surprise in the defensive backfield during fall practices as well.
"The biggest thing is just alignment and assignment," said Davis. "My philosophy is run to the football, tackle and don't get beat deep. We're going to let our players make plays."
Northeast also needed to rebuild its special teams due to departures. Will Lang of Indianola Academy and New Albany's Efrain Medina will handle all kicking duties while John Isaac Dale from Amory handles long snapping responsibilities.
The Tigers visit Pearl River Community College for their season opener on Thursday, August 31. Northeast then begins a stretch of three consecutive home games one week later versus East Central Community College.