On Sept. 13, the Lions will come to Mississippi College to play the Choctaws for the thirty-first time, but the first since 1995.
“We’re going to have the same amount of players they they’ll have out there,” said first year MC head coach John Bland. “And we’ll fight. We won’t be intimidated, that’s for sure.”
The Choctaws will return to Division II Gulf South Conference competition in the fall, after a nearly two-decade long hiatus. The NCAA originally denied MC remittance into D II, but an appeal filed by the university was approved in September. The Choctaws will not become full D II members until the fall of 2016. The fall of 2014 will mark the second year of candidacy, and in preparation the Choctaws have been able to recruit utilizing scholarships.
“(The GSC) is going to be a tough league and a tough schedule, but we can compete,” said Bland. The coach noted that the D II schools that his team will face will have opponents full of scholarship-equipped athletes. D II guidelines dictate that each school is allotted 36 scholarships for football players. These can either be used for 36 individuals, or split into more, but not all-encompassing, partial scholarships. The partial scholarship can be supplemented by academic scholarships and need-based aid to cover the full amount of a student-athlete’s costs.
National Signing Day, which fell on Feb. 5, brought 15 commits to MC. Some existing student-athletes are also receiving additional scholarship money that has become available due to the move to Division II. Bland has paced himself and his staff, knowing that if he allots all of the 36 scholarships to the incoming freshman class now, there will be none left for the following class. “We (have assigned) less than half of the scholarships we’re allotted,” said Bland.
The Choctaws will not be eligible for postseason play in the NCAA until 2016. The GSC has plenty of competition to make that enough of a challenge, anyway.
“It’s not just moving to Division II, it’s moving to the best Division II conference in the country,” said Bland. “There are D I players in this league. It’s a bunch of men.
“We’re going to have to fight, and hopefully good things will happen. We’ve got to be consistent, consistently good. We’ve got to fight to win, play to win.” Bland recognizes that the team may be out-sized but he listed the enthusiasm of a new system and new competition as advantages for MC. “I believe we have a chance to win. We will need to make the plays when they present themselves, and learn to fight to the end, for four quarters.”
The competition is stiff, even beyond North Alabama. The Choctaws open the season on Sept. 6 on the road, against the cross-town rival NAIA Belhaven Blazers.
The following week will be the home opener against UNA, one of seven GSC games. The next week, the Choctaws will travel to Lamar University on Sept. 20. The Cardinals are a D I FCS team.
The third non-GSC opponent will be against the University of Faith in week six. The Choctaws will host the Glory Eagles on Oct. 11. The Eagles are affiliated with the American Small College Athletic Association.
The final five games of the season will be against GSC competition. Valdosta State will provide homecoming entertainment for MC on Oct. 18.
The Choctaws will conclude the season on the road against Delta State University. The Statesmen are long-time rivals of the Choctaws. The teams first played in 1935, and they played annually from 1973 until MC moved to Division II in 1995. DSU has the advantage in the series, which stands at 15-17-2. The teams will clash for the first time in nearly two decades on Nov. 15 in Cleveland.
The Choctaws will return nearly 20 seniors, including approximately eight starters. Offensively, quarterback Jonathon Redd will return, and run Bland’s read-option attack. The system will focus on getting the ball to playmakers, through the air or on the ground.
Bland stated that his offense would be adjusted to complement Redd’s strengths, and his passing capabilities. There will be a hybrid system that will maximize the capabilities of the players on the field. “We’ll probably meet about halfway. You don’t have to have a great running quarterback to have a running offense. You’ve got to have a tough kid, a kid who is unselfish, who is a great leader. I think that’s what we’re looking at with Jonathon.”
Jamie Harris will return as a senior to catch Redd’s passes. Last season, he led the team with 534 yards. He had 30 receptions for 4 touchdowns, averaging 17 yards per catch.
Defensively, Jake Weddle will continue to be a leader at linebacker. “I am expecting him to have a great year,” said Bland. In 2013, he led the Choctaws with 125 tackles, 66 of which were independent. He contributed 10 tackles in the backfield and 1.5 sacks.
The incoming freshmen class now numbers more than 50 players, along with other student-athletes from junior colleges and other universities. Bland expects some of those transfer students to make immediate impacts. Landon Dunham will help fill one of many gaps on the offensive line. Chris Ingram, a running back transferring from Itawamba, also looks to add to the offense. “Those guys have two years of college experience, so we feel good about their chances to compete at a high level pretty early,” said Bland.
“August will be exciting for us,” said Bland. “Players will be motivated, eyes will be wide open and ready to go. I think it will be a good time.”
– Andy O’Brien, Sports Editor