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Alcorn focuses on 2014 season without instrumental seniors

brittney lohmiller | The Natchez Democrat Alcorn State University head football coach Jay Hopson watches his player battle it out in spring practice Tuesday.
Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — Alcorn State University head football coach Jay Hopson watches his player battle it out in spring practice Tuesday.

NATCHEZ — Expectations are high for the Alcorn State University football team this spring.

With nine starters returning on both sides of the ball, the Xs and Os come easier for a team that’s familiar with winning together, quarterback John Gibbs Jr. said.

Gibbs, who threw for 2,567 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore, is feeling more confident than ever.

“I felt like the coaches feel better about me grasping the offensive concepts,” Gibbs said. “They are giving me more read option plays and letting me throw more. My freshman year, I was thrown into the fire, and my sophomore year, I was able to slow it down. Now as a junior, we’re able to do more.”

Head coach Jay Hopson knows there’s plenty of work to be done, even if the core nucleus of last year’s 9-3 squad is present during the spring. Hopson won’t allow his team to harp on the successes of last season.

“That’s last year,” Hopson said. “We finished as the No. 5 team in the Sheridan Broadcasting Network Poll, and that’s all good. But again, that’s last year. At the end of the day, it’s all about this team developing its own personality.”

As the team stretched Tuesday afternoon during practice, Hopson moved swiftly adjusting cones for individual drills. He commanded his team’s attention, and when it came time for his offense to run an up-tempo style variation of the read option, he called for urgency.

“The big thing is we’ve got to get better at all the individual technique,” Hopson said. “I want to see us do the fundamentals better, and that’s what the spring is all about.”

quarterback John Gibbs throws the ball to a teammate during drills. (Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat)
Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — Quarterback John Gibbs throws the ball to a teammate during drills.

Running back Arnold Walker, who Alcorn players called last year’s “MVP,” will be a key missing component after graduating. Walker recorded 1,191 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns as a senior last year, which puts more pressure on Gibbs and the passing game to strive in the offseason.

“Last year, we relied on the run with Arnold Walker back there,” said wide receiver Jarvis Turner. “We’re going to have to rely on the passing game more this year.”

One of the men lobbying to fill Walker’s void is Anthony Williams III, who rushed for 255 yards and five touchdowns last season.

“I’m not saying I can replace his spot, but I have to play my part for the team,” Williams said. “I’m excited to get more carries.”

Hopson said Williams has had a great spring contending for the starting job. Hopson also said Gibbs is growing as a quarterback, Deion Roberson has been a standout at defensive end and Devon Francois has had a stellar spring at defensive back. Hopson was especially high on his deep threat, Turner, who posted 214 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions in 2013.

“I can see him getting better,” Hopson said. “He’s got all the tools to play at the next level.”

As Hopson placed dummies down the sideline, he called for an offensive lineman, defensive lineman, wide receiver, defensive back and running back to assemble at three separate stations.

The pads were popping, as offensive lineman met defensive lineman while the running back tried to run through the hole created by the dummies. If the back made it through, a linebacker or defensive back was fighting past a blocker to plant the back into the dirt.

Turner nodded his head with his tattooed arms crossed, watching his teammates participate in the drill.

“Last year, they picked us to finish in last, and we surprised a lot of people,” Turner said. “People are expecting us this year.”

It’s the grind of the spring, the intensity of the fall and the attention to details that breed a championship team, and for a team that Turner said was “trying to go all the way,” the season begins with the initiation of contact in spring practice.