Bobcats enter 2022 season with young team

Published 4:50 pm Tuesday, August 30, 2022

ELLISVILLE – There will be plenty of unfamiliar faces on the sidelines for the 2022 Jones College Bobcats.

Of the 65 players on the roster, 44 have never taken a snap as a Bobcat.

Seventh-year head coach Steve Buckley said the returning players have plenty of experience, but that is offset by the number of newcomers.

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“It’s really two-fold this year,” he said. “I’m kind of frustrated with the team right now and that may not be all their fault because of the weather. We also had a bout of Covid for a couple of weeks. But when you’ve got 44 new guys that were not on the team from last year out of a total of (65), there is room for concern.

“We are as talented as we’ve ever been. We’ve got length and we’ve got speed. But at the same time, you put 44 new guys on that field for that first game, you have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Buckley said that how the new players adapt and learn will be the key to the success of this year’s squad.

“Our young guys have to be ready,” he said. “You are looking at almost 75 percent of your team is new, so we’ve got to do a good job as coaches simplifying some things and have them not think as much and just go play and react. I am not concerned about the returning guys.

“I am concerned about the new kids and just the jump from high school to college and the speed of the game. The emotions of playing in a college football game sometimes outweigh the physical issues that you encounter being in shape.”

In 2021, Jones went 8-2, vaulted all the way to No. 1, won the MACCC South Division and finished ranked No. 8 in the final NJCAA poll. They are rated No. 11 in the current NJCAA poll.

Offensively, the Bobcats will have a new quarterback.

Quaterius Hawkins, who was under center the last three seasons, is now at Grambling. Sophomore Alan Follis (West Jones) is poised to take over.

Follis, who guided the Mustangs to the 2020 MHSAA 5A state title, saw limited action last year, completing 10-of-17 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown.

Buckley said Follis has made major strides in the offseason.

“Alan had a really good spring and really developed from a mental standpoint,” he said. “He has a grasp of the whole offense right now. He has added about 18 pounds since he reported last year. I feel good about Alan.”

A highly regarded freshman will also be at quarterback as DJ Smith (Greenville Christian) comes in after leading the Saints to consecutive MAIS 3A titles. Smith, Mississippi’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2021, threw for 2,642 yards and 37 touchdowns and rushed for 935 yards and 14 scores at Greenville Christian.

“DJ is a good looking kid and he looks to be great,” Buckley said. “He’s just trying to get a handle on that, but I feel really good about the quarterback situation.”

The Bobcats have experience at wide receiver with several third-year players returning, including Ashton Nickelberry (Brandon), Kendall Coleman (Choctaw County) and Qua Sanders (West Lowndes). Sanders had 27 catches for 364 yards and three touchdowns and Coleman had 28 receptions for 354 yards and one score.

Buckley said Nickelberry, who had 17 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown, has impressed in preseason workouts.

“Ashton has had a great camp,” he said. “He never says a word and just does his job. He is really playing well for us right now. We’ve got experience and we’ve added length there with the freshmen.”

Buckley also likes his group of tight ends, led by returnee Kason James (Taylorsville) and newcomer Terron Bedford (Bay).

“Kason played some last year as our third tight end and he’s had a great offseason and great preseason,” Buckley said. “Terron weighs 270 and he’s got all of the tools to be an excellent tight end.”

Robert Henry (Lumberton) looks to step up at running back after La’Damian Webb moved on to South Alabama. Henry rushed 81 times for 495 yards and six touchdowns last year. Freshmen Omar Johnson (Columbia) and Trent Howell (George County) will also play.

“I think Robert ought to have a good year,” Buckley said. “Robert has the potential to be like Scottie (Phillips), Kalyn (Grandberry) and La’Damian. He had a lot of quality reps last year and one start against Co-Lin where he had a big game. I like our running backs, I really do.”

Jones has experience in the offensive line with returnees Markell Smith (Biloxi), Quintin Fowler (Hancock), Marshakie Applewhite Jr. (Greenwood) and Justin Wilson (Heidelberg).

“I am concerned about depth with the offensive line,” Buckley said. “We need one guy to step up there to make us really good across the board with five. But I feel like once we get pads on, we will know more about that position.”

On defense, the Bobcats’ strength should be in the secondary with loads of experience.

“We have five players that are in their third year back there,” Buckley said. “The young guys are very talented and I love their twitchiness and speed. We do a lot of things in coverage and they are starting to understand it better.”

Cornerback Lardarius Webb Jr. (Jackson Academy), Travor Randle (Greenwood), Ty Rawls (Wetumpka, Alabama), André Mack (Madison Central) and Daylin Metcalf (Greenville Christian) all played significant time last year in the secondary.

Webb, who has several Division I offers, had 29 tackles, three TFLs, nine pass break-ups and three interceptions last year. He returned one interception for a score and had one punt return for a touchdown. Randle had 40 tackles, two TFLs, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, which was returned for a touchdown.

“If Lardarius is not the best corner around, I don’t know who is,” Buckley said. “Travor is as solid as it gets.”

At linebacker, Javarian Jenkins (Oak Grove) is back, along with Ricky Willis (Harrison Central) and Kamarius Husband (West Marion).

“I am really pleased with our linebackers,” Buckley said. “They look the part. Javarian is back and has done a great job. Ricky and Mookie Husband played sparingly last year. Javarian is the only starter back, but I really like the young kids at that position. They have really done well and are handling their part.”

The Bobcats have question marks in the defensive line.

“The defensive line is a major concern,” Buckley said. “First, we’ve got to find the starters and then we’ve got to find the depth. Basically, we have nobody returning from last year.”

Josh Belk (Fort Lawn, South Carolina) is back after being away for two years. Belk, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive tackle, originally signed with Clemson out of high school, but ended up playing his freshman year in 2018 at South Carolina. He came to Jones in 2020 but was injured in the opening game and missed the rest of the year.

“Josh has lost 80 pounds since he was here last,” Buckley said. “He has just got to stay healthy.”

Janirr Wade (Stone Mountain, Georgia) is a 6-foot-4, 260-pound transfer from Akron University and has shown promise in preseason, along with true freshman CJ Buckhalter (Presbyterian Christian School), a 5-foot-10, 300-pound product,

“Janirr is a young man who transferred from Akron who has shown flashes that he can be a really good player in this league,” Buckley said. “After that, it’s kind of up in the air. But I’ve also been pleased with CJ Buckhalter. The kids in the defensive line must grow up and get ready to play. They have no choice.”

Jones has experienced kickers back in Brody Pierce (Starkville Academy) and Yohan Thompson (Adams County Christian School). Adams County Christian School product Jamar Kaho Jr. is entering his freshman season with the squad.

Pierce converted 37 extra points and averaged 36.2 yards per kick on 10 punts. Thompson punted 30 times for a 38.3 yards per kick average.

Charlie Cox (Starkville Academy) is the new long snapper.

Buckley believes the Bobcats’ special teams will be a strong point for the team.

“Charlie was Brody’s snapper at Starkville Academy and we thought he was one of the top snappers in the state last year,” he said. “I feel very confident in our kicking game and you add in our coverage team with our speed and long bodies and we should excel in the kicking game. Hopefully, we are good enough in the kicking game that it can help us early in the season to get some of these young guys some experience.”

Buckley knows the Bobcats will face the usual, strong MACCC schedule, starting with the opener at home at 7 p.m. on Sept. 1 vs. Itawamba.

“I can’t go past Itawamba because that’s our first game,” he said. “I’m not going to change my philosophy and we are going to take them one at a time. But we’ve got a heckuva schedule, especially with our first three games (Itawamba, East Mississippi, Copiah-Lincoln). They all have the potential to be really good.

“We were down 14-7 to Itawamba at halftime last year (Jones would win the game, 35-23)”. “They do a great job scheme-wise and can present you problems. (Head Coach) Sean (Cannon) has been there a long time and they do a good job. That’s our first target and we’ve got to get ready from them.”

Buckley is pleased with his returnees and knows they will set the foundation for the team.

“The guys coming back have played a lot of snaps,” he said. “I think we have 13 third-year guys and that third year makes a difference. The older you are, the better you are – it’s just common sense.

“I think as far as the overall outlook, I am very optimistic. The first week we come back and get cranked up again for fall camp is going to make us or break us. We will have a full week without class, a week with class and then it’s game week.”

Jones College football games will air on JCJC.TV, WLAU-FM, 99.3 and SuperTalkLaurel.com with Mark Easley and Luke Johnson on the call.