Booneville, Miss. – The Northeast Mississippi Community College football program will once again introduce a bundle of new faces when it takes the field for the first time in the fall of 2018.
At least 35 out of the 55-man total player allotment will be newcomers to the program as they boldly embark on the Tigers' 59th overall season of intercollegiate competition on the gridiron.
However, Northeast's expectations for success remain at an all-time high with the amount of talent that will grace its sidelines this autumn. The Tigers have 12 athletes that received individual rankings from national recruiting services plus several others that were named all-state or participated in all-star contests.
One location that remained unchanged this year for the Tigers is their offensive staff. Doug Saylor and Vince Sanders are back for their second campaigns as offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, respectively, while head coach Greg Davis keeps a watchful eye on the line.
Leading the list of returners for Northeast is quarterback Zac Oden, who will be a redshirt freshman after his initial season on the Booneville campus was cut short due to an injury after securing the starting job for the first two weeks of the campaign.
Oden passed for 229 yards and a touchdown one year ago during his limited action. He was an Alabama Sports Writers Association (ASWA) Class 3A All-State honoree and an all-area pick by The Birmingham News following his senior season at Montevallo (Ala.) High School.
"Zac's back and fully healthy," Davis said. "He's throwing the ball extremely well. His leadership qualities have definitely shown. The thing about Zac is he's got the ability to be a Division I quarterback. He's doing a great job."
Oden also has the responsibility of mentoring two young, but gifted signal callers in Armoni Clark and Reed Collins. Collins passed for nearly 2,000 yards with 17 touchdowns during his final campaign at Saint Joseph Catholic School in Madison.
Clark guided Noxubee County High School to the 2017 Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 4A state championship. He had three touchdown passes and also scored on the ground in the title victory over East Central High School at the University of Mississippi's Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
"Reed has a big, tall, long body and throws the ball well. He's learning the offense extremely well," said Davis. "As time keeps going, Armoni keeps doing some good things in practice. We've just got to keep rolling and get the experience they need to be successful."
Joining Oden and his fellow quarterbacks behind center are a group of four running backs that each have similar strengths. Orlando Simon, who rushed for 999 yards and seven scores as a senior at Oak Grove High School, is the lone freshman in that tandem.
Corinth's Jalen Cobbs, Zykeris Mosley of Independence and Karleke Oliver from Hernando all saw consistent playing time as freshmen for the Tigers. They each crossed into the end zone at least once and had over 100 yards last year.
"We feel like we're pretty good. We have a very, very quality group of backs," said Davis. "They all bring little tweaks to the game that are important. We feel like we're better than we were in the past."
Northeast must essentially replace its entire receiving corps for a second straight season. The lone exceptions to that are Hernando's O.D. Wooten, who made 21 catches for 272 yards and three touchdowns during the previous campaign, and Kortlon Hubbard of Forest Hill High School.
However, the Tigers bolstered their depth with the addition of Ole Miss transfer D.D. Bowie. His list of accolades at Morton High School include a 4-star rating, Mississippi Association of Coaches (MAC) Class 3A Player of the Year, a U.S. Army All-American selection and a top 10 ranking among all wideouts countrywide.
Among the other rookies at receiver are the Northwest Rankin High School duo of Carson Banks and Montel Gladney, Sirmarcus Evans of Tupelo, Kymbotric Mason from Noxubee County plus Tameric Perry of Corinth High School.
"We feel like we're very good," Davis said. "We just kinda have a scrappy group. We have some height and length. We have some guys that can really get after it. We feel like that we're better top to bottom speed as well as route running ability."
Northeast has two unquestioned leaders on its offensive line in Quan Stokes from Moultrie, Ga., and Saraland, Ala., native Matthew Trehern. The two big men both eclipse 330 pounds and have NCAA Division I offers from institutions such as the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of South Alabama.
The Tigers also bring back another handful of sophomores that should increase their productivity this year in Amory's John Isaac Dale, Cooper Knight from Pontotoc and Tyler Waddell of DeSoto Central High School.
"We're looking for good things out of all those guys," said Davis. "We've got a good, physical group. I'm excited about what those guys do day in and day out. It's a pleasure to work with them because they get after it and do have some fun."
Northeast has stockpiled a plethora of athletes with exceptional capabilities on defense such as Terrance Edgeston, Isaiah Forte, Edward Johnson, Emmanuel Olenga, Darius Shipp, Demarco Smith, D'Jordan Strong and Sam Williams.
Falkner's Edgeston is a three-star linebacker that is committed to the University of Houston (Texas). He made 32 tackles, including two of them for loss, while playing at defensive back for the Tigers one season ago.
Forte and Olenga are both three-star linemen with plenty of promise. Forte is a true freshman from Montgomery, Ala., while Olenga is a transfer from Campbell (N.C.) University that started his collegiate career at North Carolina State University.
Shipp and Smith boost Northeast's efforts in the trenches even more. The duo are two-star prospects that come from the northwest corner of the Magnolia State at Lewisburg High School and North Panola High School, respectively.
Johnson and Strong are both two-star defensive backs that come from outstanding prep programs. Johnson starred at Robert E. Lee (Ala.) High School in the capital of the Yellowhammer State while Strong was a key contributor at 11-time state champion South Panola High School.
Williams is rated as the seventh-best player across all positions in the junior college ranks, including non-NJCAA members in the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA). He is an Ole Miss commit and a four-star athlete that was a MACJC All-State standout as a freshman with the Tigers.
"Sam is our leader and Emmanuel is a grown man," Davis said. "When you've got two guys like them coming off the edge, we have a very talented defensive line. When you throw in a guy like Isaiah which was a highly sought after recruit, we just keep getting better."
Davis also noted the contributions that local products Isaiah Hill from Kossuth High School and Jimmy Tyes of Baldwyn should make on the line. Ja'Torrian Fuller-Jones of George W. Carver (Ala.) High School and Devonte Reed from Independence should prosper as well.
Northeast's leading tackler from last season in Juwan Taylor paces the linebackers. The Provine High School alumnus garnered MACJC All-State laurels last fall with 57 stops, one interception and a blocked punt to his credit.
A sensational group of freshmen that were starters at their respective high schools in D.T. Thompson from Oxford, Terry Joiner of Macon, Southaven's Kendarrious Reed and Javier Shinn from New Hope will each follow in the steps of Edgeston and Taylor.
"We're really pretty good at linebacker," said Davis. "We're excited about that group. We have a lot of speed and length. We feel like that we're probably as good there as we have been in a long time as far as overall depth."
Complimenting Johnson and Strong at cornerback are Cam Crooks from Flowood and Ovurton Gates of Baldwyn. Gates is one of the top five returning tacklers for the Tigers with 25 takedowns, including 20 solo stops, in 2017.
"We have probably hands down the best corner group that I've ever been around," Davis said. "We feel like we're as good as probably most schools in the (MACJC) and potentially even some Division I schools. It's a battle and a matchup everyday (at practice) between receivers and defensive backs."
Callaway High School graduate Jamal Bolden and Jeremiah Boyd of Morton provide Northeast with maturity at safety. The duo combined to make 54 tackles during their freshman campaigns while Bolden added a fumble recovery to his resume.
The Tigers signed a key weapon on special teams in Michael Baugus, who was tabbed as a MAC Class 4A All-State punter after averaging 38.1 yards per boot. He can also kick the pigskin very efficiently with 41 total points between field goals and extra points as a senior at Corinth High School.
Northeast travels to Southwest Mississippi Community College for its season opener on Thursday, August 30. The Tigers then take on Copiah-Lincoln Community College in their inaugural home contest one week later.