Alcorn State opens fall camp with returning pieces

Published 12:02 am Friday, August 7, 2015

Alcorn State wide receiver Charles Hughes secures a reception from quarterback John Gibbs in a no-contact scrimmage during Alcorn’s first practice of fall camp Thursday. (Jake Martin / The Natchez Democrat)

Alcorn State wide receiver Charles Hughes secures a reception from quarterback John Gibbs in a no-contact scrimmage during Alcorn’s first practice of fall camp Thursday. (Jake Martin / The Natchez Democrat)

LORMAN — Fresh off of being named the 2015 Southwestern Athletic Conference preseason offensive player of the year, John Gibbs reported to the first day of fall camp Thursday morning as a reigning champion.

Gibbs and his teammates brought Alcorn State its first SWAC football championship since 1993, but Thursday marked the start of a new season. As Gibbs looked around practice, he saw four returning starters at receiver, including tight end Jordan Payne, who led the team in receiving last season. After throwing a touchdown pass to Charles Hughes in a no-contact scrimmage, Gibbs heard a familiar voice.

“Now you have that touch, Gibbs,” receiver Jaborian “Tip” McKenzie shouted from the sideline, poking fun at his quarterback.

Email newsletter signup

While Alcorn State players were mostly all business on the first day back as a team, Gibbs couldn’t help but laugh at McKenzie.

“It’s real important to have those moments because you have to have a great relationship with your receivers and offensive line,” Gibbs said. “We’ll laugh and joke around, but at the same time, you have to get serious.”

Entering his senior season, Gibbs heads up an offense that scored 44 points per game last season — the second best points per game statistic in FCS in 2014. Returning in the backfield alongside Gibbs will be Arron Baker and Darryan Ragsdale, who totaled 1,416 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns in 2014. Joe Price returns from an injury, as well, making the backfield a crowded one in 2015.

Despite the familiar cast, the offense struggled to find a groove, which was somewhat to be expected given it was the first day.

“Offensively, we’re not where we were when we ended the season last year,” Gibbs said. “I don’t think we’re far from it, but we need to critique a few things here and there to get better.”

Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson concurred, saying he would like to see much improvement in today’s practice.

“I thought we did some good things, but I wasn’t pleased at times,” Hopson said. “We have to get better. I’ll put it like that.”

As the offense worked on its chemistry, the defense chirped with one another, identifying packages and moving into place to defend them.

After an adjustment in the secondary, Warren Gatewood undercut a route and intercepted a pass before taking it back for a touchdown. The defense reacted to the defensive play, but delivered little enthusiasm, inspiring safety Anthony Williams to rally his teammates on the sideline.

“Touchdowns off of turnovers don’t come around too often, so everybody needs to meet your teammate in the end zone,” Williams shouted emphatically. “We have to turn up for turnovers.”

The starters on defense fed on his words. Despite having to replace four of the five top tacklers from last season, the defense made play after play in a scrimmage against the offense.

“We were flying around and making plays,” said defensive lineman Darien Moody, who made 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season. “It’s all a learning process, but we’re communicating. I think we took a step in the right direction today.”

Another notable returning starter for the defense is linebacker Damon Watkins, who was second on the team in tackles last season with 79. Between defensive reps, Watkins constantly communicated with coaches and teammates in an effort to fully understand scheme and where every player should be.

The showcase on defense gave Hopson plenty to look forward to, as he looks to insert new faces on a defense that ranked No. 8 nationally in scoring defense.

“I thought there was some pretty good retention,” Hopson said. “Some guys floated around pretty good. I thought some of the young guys stepped up and looked good. We’ll find out as two-a-days get going how they’ll improve.”