With last year’s success safely tucked away in the record books, fifth year head football coach Ricky Smither will look to lead his troops back to the Mississippi Association of Community & Junior Colleges (MACJC) playoffs in 2012.
Northeast finished 6-4 overall after falling to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College 20-17 in overtime during the first round of the 2011 postseason.
“It was a really hard loss for our kids to take,” explained Smither. “We worked so hard to start off the season undefeated at 5-0 and being nationally ranked. We had some tough losses after that great start but slid into the playoffs at the end. However, our inexperience with the playoffs showed up and we were unable to pull it out in overtime but we all learned a great deal from what happened.
“For the few sophomores we have returning who participated in last year’s success and the tough loss in the playoffs, it left a bad taste in their mouth and I expect those guys to help lead the way this year even further into the postseason.”
Smither lost over 20 sophomores and returns only a handful with playing experience on the junior college (JUCO) battlefield to this year’s roster.
Leading the way for the offense will be returning tight ends Logan Stokes of Muscle Shoals, Ala., who has already committed to Louisiana State University (LSU), Donnell Chapman of Batesville and center Collin Stubblefield of New Albany, who played every snap for the Tigers last season.
For defensive upper classmen leadership, the Tigers will look for sophomore defensive tackle Lavon Hooks of Atlanta, linebacker Dennis Draper of Batesville, linebacker Nick Thomason of Muscle Shoals, Alabama and cornerback Kareem Brown of New Albany to push the young defense into performing at the high level of production the defense obtained in 2011.
Veteran coach Travis Macon will man the defensive coordinator headset for the 2012 season.
“All these upper classmen should be prepared to lead,” Smither said. “They know what it’s like playing at the JUCO level and theyhave on-the-field experience that will help them step up in a leadership role this year and Coach Macon has paid his dues as a coach and will definitely help them reach their goal of winning.”
The key word for the 2012 Tiger football squad is “young” and this is also true for their Division I-A transfer quarterback Matt Lipham who will be called upon to fill the void at the signal caller spot.
Lipham transferred from Southern Illinois University, where he was redshirted, but brings in an impressive resume from his high school career.
“Matt is a great kid and a talented player who played at Salmen High School in Louisiana,” Smither said. “He is a big strong quarterback (6-5, 215) who can run and throw. He came out of a winning program where he led the Spartans to the postseason and set all sorts of school records.”
Lipham was a two-time All District 9-4A selection and holds the Spartans career record for passing touchdowns (43) and passing yards (3,825) while only giving up seven interceptions. Lipham’s overall record was 20-4 as a starter and added 55 career touchdowns that set another school record.
Corinth’s Nolan Genovese will push Lipham at the quarterback spot. Genovese is a sophomore transfer from Holmes Community College who played high school football for the Warriors.
“These two guys are very intelligent and will push each other to get better,” explained Smither. “The problem will be who are they going to throw to? We’ve got to have some guys step up at the receiver position in order to help our quarterbacks be successful.”
Northeast lost a pair of talented receivers after the 2011 season when Tres Houston signed with Arkansas State and Donte Barksdale joined the Delta State University Statesmen football team.
“Losing guys like Tres and Donte is tough and they’re going to be hard to replace,” Smither said. “However, we do have few guys that played some at wideout late last year with Jamarius Tallie and Michael Bush (both from West Point), to go along with new players like Raymond Gee, Jr., who is a 6-4 kid who has great ball skills and also Demarrion Haynes, who can flat out fly.”
In the backfield Smither will look for running back Jay Jones to pick up where he left off two years ago when Jones lead the way for Northwest Mississippi Community College and even before that Jones was a high school standout at Horn Lake.
“I am really excited about this position and what Jay can bring to the table for us,” Smither said. “Jay runs very well, has great vision and can catch the ball extremely well out of the backfield. Backing him up will be Garrett Smith (Starkville) who is one of our sophomores who did play some last year — who I am excited about — to go along with Pascal Desir III (Jackson) another very youngtalented player. Clayton McCoy (Falkner) will be our halfback and should help clear some running lanes for these other guys.”
With all this talent in the backfield, the Tigers will have to get some help from the big men up front in order to be successful.
“We can talk about the guys catching the ball and throwing the ball and running the ball all day long but if those big guys up front don’t block…we are in trouble,” Smither explained.
“Our entire line is returning from last year but the only one that played every snap is Collin,” Smither said. “Jonathan Braddock (Ripley) and Carlton Howard (Batesville) played some for us last year and we signed Anthony Kibler, a transfer from the University of South Florida, who should be a top notch player in this league. We also signed some other young guys that could fill some voids and see some playing time as well like Travarius Love of Charleston and Logan Hall from Kossuth.”
Newly hired offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Greg Davis will look to command the linemen and run the show for the Tigers’ offense in 2012.
“Greg brings a lot of valuable experience to us,” Smither said. “He played at Texas Christian University and for the New York Giants and his coaching resume speaks for itself.”
Smither has added another new hire — defensive line coach Deljuan Robinson, who played at Mississippi State and has NFL experience with the Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers – who will put up the front line of defense for Northeast this season.
“Deljuan is a tremendous teacher and he knows how to get his guys to play hard for him, his kids love him,” said Smither. “He will have Hooks leading the charge for his defensive front along with Ernesto Wynn, Rezean Prather and Maurice Booker.”
Wynn hails from Augusta, Georgia while Prather is a Ripley native and Booker comes from Leighton, Alabama.
Behind the front will be three linebackers that all return with playing experience with Thomason and Draper leading the charge next to J.R. White of Tuscumbia, Alabama.
“Thomason is a hard nose player who is being highly recruited and Draper is like our “Honey Badger”, explained Smither. “Dennis is always 100 percent and a playmaker that can really run well and is everywhere it seems like. J.R. is a big solid kid who will give us some good strength in the middle. We also signed some other young guys like Nick Johnson (Olive Branch) who will see some playing time this year.”
The last line of defense for the Tigers will obviously be the secondary and fans will not only see new faces in the defensive backfield but will also notice a new coach.
Jonathan Webster will be the new defensive back’s coach and only has one returning player with junior college experience in Brown.
“Webster is a tremendous coach and a great teacher,” said Smither. “He is another guy the kids really flock to and believe in.”
Webster will have to look to replace some key starters in the secondary that moved on from last year’s team including Deion Belue, who inked with the University of Alabama, Jeremy Spikner, who inked with Troy University, and two big playmakers at the safety position in Frankie Lee and Devin Lindsey.
“To be completely honest, I really think we have more talent overall in the secondary this year than we did last season,” explained Smither. “We got Dale Trimble here now who is a transfer from the University of Kentucky and is a great athlete to replace Belue, and of course Brown who was a great player for us in 2011. Our biggest surprise is Brian Walker, a transfer from Valdosta who will be at one of our safety spots along with Antione Wilson.”
“Overall, we are just really talented this season but very young,” said Smither. “We have some guys that run really well and we are going to be a lot faster than we have ever been. The bottom line for us . . . will be chemistry.
“We are young and we don’t have a lot of time to gel in this league so these guys will have to learn to trust each other and work together in a hurry.”
One aspect where Smither knows he can put his trust in is in special teams. Sophomore Jonathan Harrison returns as one of the premier punters in the league and should have another big season. Place kicker duties will be riding on the leg of newcomer Chris Cooper of Madison Central High School.
“Cooper is amazing,” Smither said. “I don’t know why a Division I-A school didn’t pick him up because he has one of the strongest legs I have seen in a while. He made 63-yard field goals at practice and that is something special. On kickoff duty he is putting it way out of the back of the end zone and we hope he can continue that into the season.”
“Harrison was the number two punter in the state last season and he just keeps getting better and better,” Smither said. “These two guys just make my job easier and make my decisions easier when it comes down to what options we go to during a game.”
Northeast should give the fans plenty to cheer about in 2012 as the Tigers continue to do battle in the “Toughest League in America”.