For the first time since 2017, the East Central Community College football Warriors will play more games at home than on the road as Head Coach Ken Karcher will rely on a mixture of proven returners and talented newcomers in a quest to return to the postseason after a two-year absence.
It will be how the Warriors fare in those home games in Decatur that will determine their postseason fate.
"It's important for our football team that we win our home games," said Karcher, who has led the Warriors to the playoffs twice in the past four seasons. "We must approach each game strategically and be who we are, and not try to be a team we are not. And we must eliminate dumb mistakes. If we do those things and win our home games, then we have a chance."
Karcher and his re-tooled coaching staff welcomed 67 players to campus Aug. 4, with the first fall practice taking place the following day.
The final 2019 Warrior squad was trimmed down to 60 players following a home scrimmage against Hinds Community College on Aug. 16.
The 2019 regular season opens on Thursday, Aug. 29, at 6:30 p.m. when East Central entertains the Northwest Rangers in Bailey Stadium in Decatur.
The Warriors return four starters on offense and five on defense from the 2018 squad that finished 4-5 overall and 3-3 in the MACJC South Division. Nine starters from last season are playing at four-year colleges and universities this fall.
"We lost some good, quality football players from last year's team," said Karcher. "But we are expecting big things from some of our returning players, and we had a strong signing class this year and we expect some of those new players to contribute early."
Returning on offense is MACJC First Team All-State wide receiver Jaylen Zachery. The product of Thurgood Marshall in Dayton, Ohio, had 27 catches for 396 yards and four scores a year ago. Ray Thomas is back at tight end. The Senatobia native had eight receptions and one touchdown in his freshman season.
"We feel very good about our receiving corps this season," noted Karcher. "Between the returning players and the newcomers, we should be strong in this area."
Karcher said the quarterback competition has yet to be settled, with two freshmen vying for the starting nod. Holman Edwards, a 6-2, 205-pound signal-caller out of French Camp Academy, and 6-3, 235-pound Deonte Yarbrough from Louisville are both getting reps under center in the preseason.
"Both of these guys can be very good quarterbacks in this league," said Karcher.
Karcher hopes sophomore Marq Qualls (Lake) can fill the shoes of last year's work horse James Smith III. Smith III, who is playing for the University of West Alabama this season, rushed for 872 yards and had another 138 yards receiving.
Other big shoes to fill on offense will be tackle Ethan McMullan, now at the University of North Alabama, and wide receiver/returner Kevontaye Caston, who will play for Prairie View A&M this fall. Caston had 1,114 all-purpose yards last year while averaging nearly 30 years per kick return.
On defense, the Warriors return five starters, including two key players from last year's defensive front that helped contribute to 27 sacks in nine games. Defensive tackle Alvin Dempsey (Port St. Joe, Fla.) and defensive end Ronnie Thomas (Clinton) are both back. Dempsey totaled 40 tackles, six and a half sacks, and seven tackles for a loss last season. Freshman Joshua Ratcliff out of Assumption High School in Napoleonville, La., is expected to step in alongside Dempsey and Thomas.
Sophomore linebackers Elijah Keyes (Mize) and Payton Rogers (Forest) and cornerback Fred McGee (Greene County) all saw extended playing time last season and return for the defense.
Karcher said he is counting on three freshman defensive backs to contribute early and help offset the departure of two-time NJCAA All-Region 23 and MACJC First Team All-State safety Keonte' Daniels, who signed with Mississippi Valley State University. Tra'Jen Anderson (North Forrest, Hattiesburg), Anthony Thomas (Stringer), and Jaeden Webb (Northwest Rankin) are all expected to get early playing time with McGee in the defensive secondary.
Both kicking specialists from last season return, but are being pushed for their starting jobs by a newcomer. Punter Steven Anderson (Purvis) and placekicker Sam Cox (Starkville Academy) handled most of the kicking duties in 2018. However, freshman punter/kicker Robens Beauplan (Lehigh Acres, Fla.) has created a three-way battle for playing time as the season opener approaches.
"We feel good about where we are with our kicking game for this season," Karcher noted. "The competition between these young men is making each of them better, and we will have some tough decisions to make as we get ready for the first game."
East Central also has new faces on the coaching staff this fall. Former University of Alabama defensive lineman and defensive coordinator at Hewitt-Trussville High School in Alabama Rudy Griffin will coach defensive linemen. Brandon native Drew Dunn, who was a defensive graduate assistant at both the University of South Alabama and Ole Miss, will coach cornerbacks. Former Vanderbilt fullback and Hewitt-Trussville linebackers coach Bailey McElwain will coach safeties for the Warriors.
In addition, second year coach Mike Jones has added offensive coordinator duties and Dennis Alexander, who is in his sixth season on Karcher's staff, has added run game coordinator to his duties as offensive line coach.
"We have a very experienced staff in one sense, and a quality young group of coaches who have joined us," Karcher said. "They are all committed to the same mission, are great teachers, and love these kids," Karcher said.
For the second year in a row, East Central faces the most difficult schedule in the MACJC. In addition to the season opener against Northwest, the Warriors play all four playoff teams from a year ago, including road games at Copiah-Lincoln, East Mississippi, and Jones. East Central will also travel to Southwest, as well as host Itawamba, Pearl River, Gulf Coast, and Hinds.
The Warriors will play their home games this season in the shadows of Warrior Hall, the new football operations center under construction and expected to open in January 2020. The estimated $2.6 million, 12,300-square-foot facility will be located just outside the north end zone of Warrior Field at Bailey Stadium.
Warrior Hall will contain locker rooms for players and coaches, a team meeting room, position conference rooms, coaches' offices, an equipment room, a players' lounge, and a laundry room. It will also house a state-of-the-art training room to be used by student-athletes in all nine varsity sports at the college.
All home and away football action this season can be heard on WKOZ "Cruisin" 98.3 radio or at www.eccc.edu/eccc-media. Live stream video of all home games as well as links to live stream of road opponents can also be found at www.eccc.edu/eccc-media.
For more information on ECCC Warrior football, including a full schedule and roster, visit www.ecccathletics.com.
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East Central Community College