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Stories Written by Brandon Speck
By Brandon Speck
WALNUT – Armani Linton carefully opened a squeaky door as his coach, John Meeks, did an interview. Not long ago, he might have busted in and scooted a metal chair across the floor.
“I was this little ball of anger, pretty much,” Linton said. “I didn’t want to act right. I had a horrible attitude.”
Armani Linton had no idea who he was. Meeks did.
Friday at Booneville, Walnut’s three-star safety, an Ole Miss commit, is starting the first game of his final prep season. The road has been crooked at times.
When the kid from Chicago moved to small-town Walnut, Meeks was determined to help straighten his path.
“It was basically one of those things where he basically wanted to pull me in,” Linton said. “At that time, I wasn’t the best kid, and he basically wanted me to get a hold of something I could stick with.”
Linton (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) grew up, and football stuck.
But before he became a June headline for flipping his college commitment from Mississippi State to rival Ole Miss, the only thing he knew about football was the Bears. But he is thankful to be far away from Soldier Field.
“It was a rough place. It was a rough lifestyle,” Linton said. “I moved here and my cousin, she kind of brought me in. She was basically my mom, and she still is.”
It was 2009. He was an aimless seventh grader. But Meeks, then junior high coach, saw a likeable kid, capable of more. Linton found more.
Meeks asked if he wanted to play football, but he was ineligible. It hurt, but as water boy, he watched high school practice, and his love for the game grew.
“But at the same time, I was still having that classroom trouble,” Linton said. “Teachers couldn’t tell me anything.”
Making the grade
Meeks and basketball coach Mike Lewis pushed him to get his grades up. In eighth grade, Linton’s first play at running back went for 60-some yards against Chalybeate.
“That’s when it really hit me,” Linton said. “It was just like, ‘Yeah, you can do this.’”
Meeks, now in his third year as head coach, had taken Linton to the 2010 Egg Bowl, his first taste of college football in the South. As a freshman, he rushed for 348 yards and three touchdowns and averaged more than 10 yards per carry. He caught 13 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns and had 13 tackles.
It was a good season, but not good enough for the standards he had already begun to set, already removed from that self-described angry kid.
“First and foremost, he’s a great person,” Meeks said.
After an LSU camp as a sophomore, he took the opportunity to move in with family, an LSU coach, in Louisiana and played at Class 5A Dutchtown. After moving back to Walnut, Linton rushed for 1,348 yards and 25 touchdowns and had 36 tackles and two picks at safety. His recruitment picked up, and he committed to Mississippi State in February.
He was looking forward to being a Bulldog, football and a high-level education.
He didn’t rescind his commitment the minute Ole Miss offered. Though he says he had developed into an Ole Miss fan, he mulled it for weeks.
Once, he didn’t care what others thought. Now, it’s everyone else, then himself. He carefully thought about what his future held.
On June 6, along with Bruce senior receiver Jay Johnson, also an MSU commit, it was time. At Ole Miss Elite Camp, they both made their flips public.
Linton thinks out his answers to questions and admittedly practices. He prepped the same way when he decided to commit to the Rebels.
“After I made my decision on ‘OK, well, I know where home is,’ I started mentally prepping myself. You’re going to get these people who are going to hate you. They’re going to say whatever. They’re going to say what they want, but it’s not their decision. It’s something that’s going to affect the rest of your life.
“You never know when your last play will be. It could affect five (years). Look at D.T. Shackelford and it could affect six.”
The thoughtful teenager had already considered the two years of knee injuries that led Ole Miss linebacker Shackelford to a sixth year of eligibility.
The hits came, but Linton doesn’t feel like he made the announcement in a bad way, mindful of reversing his choice, mindful of backlash.
Linton isn’t the Chicago kid who moved to Walnut. But he’s also not who he wants to be.
“I want to be a better leader,” he said. “When I go to college, I want to be practicing for a national championship. When I’m in high school, I want to be practicing for the state championship.”
By Brandon Speck
HOUSTON – Houston’s juniors and seniors have been on both sides of the win-loss column. Two seasons ago, the Hilltoppers went 11-3 and three rounds deep into the playoffs. Last season, the Toppers managed to win only one game.
“We’re a family. Everybody fights for each other,” senior linebacker Damian Fields said.
Houston coach William Cook said that’s what he’s seen. The upperclassmen have used the negative to bring back the positive.
The redemption season begins Friday as Houston opens at Pontotoc.
“Their whole thing was, ‘We didn’t finish last year.’ And that was obvious. We’d play three quarters and fall off at the end, just run out of gas here and there,” Cook said. “They used that to motivate and push themselves throughout the offseason and the summer to get to where we are now.”
Cook said he could see glimpses of that motivation in spring game wins against New Albany and Shannon. He said kids have gotten bigger and stronger over the summer, coming to work at 5 a.m. – at their own request.
“It’s two different seasons, but it’s two different teams,” Cook said. “We lost a whole lot that year. We had a great senior class. Last year, it was discouraging, but the seniors and juniors kind of took that upon themselves this offseason and it’s been motivating.”
Two seasons ago, Houston gave fans the best season in school history, 11 wins for the first time and its first playoff win. The seniors have been a part of three straight playoff trips – Houston made it last season despite the one win.
The seniors and juniors were there for the 2012 run and the 2013 slide. They are bent on starting a new run.
“It was tough, but this year we’re going to go hard,” said junior defensive end J.J. Brownlee.
By Brandon Speck
North Pontotoc saw one of the state’s best running backs on Saturday in the Oxford Jamboree – Saltillo’s Diamante Pounds.
That didn’t count. But when the Vikings host Bruce, the Journal’s No. 3 small school, on Friday to open the 2014 regular season, it’s on the record, and they’ll see one of the state’s best receivers in Ole Miss commit Jay Johnson.
North Pontotoc head coach Brian Sutton watched Bruce film at 6 a.m. Saturday, four hours before his team faced Saltillo at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“Our road doesn’t get any easier. We’ve got a pretty tough row to hoe before we get to division,” Sutton said.
Throwing to Johnson will be a familiar face. Former rival South Pontotoc QB Wesley Ross transferred to Bruce.
North lost 14-7 to Saltillo. New quarterback Caleb Nelson threw for 176 yards on 12-of-20 passing, with a touchdown to Zay Cullens.
“Early, I thought we were moving the ball on offense, and I thought our defense was playing great,” Sutton said. “We can’t miss assignments on defense and we can’t have turnovers and penalties on offense. I think we got a little tired.”
Keep an eye on
Oxford at Jackson Prep: The Chargers, the Journal’s No. 2 ranked large school, are No. 13 in the MaxPreps Preseason Top 25 Medium School rankings. Jackson Prep, which lost 32-20 last season in the season-opener at Oxford, is No. 21.
Tupelo at Lafayette: Tupelo is the Journal’s No. 1 Large School in a battle of 2013 North winners.
Ripley at Itawamba AHS: It’s a top five showdown with Ripley No. 1 and IAHS No. 4. Ripley opened last season with a 45-14 win.
By Brandon Speck
OXFORD – Falkner senior quarterback Jase Stroupe is a dual threat, at least. Last season, he threw for 1,496 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 1,149 and 10 touchdowns.
He doesn’t require much of a breather, either. The senior just stays out there on defense. At linebacker, he had 48 tackles.
“I love being in the game,” Stroupe said after Saturday’s 14-13 loss to Marshall Academy in the Oxford Jamboree. “Just whatever I can do to help win.”
Stroupe carried it more times than feature back Jeramie Lawrence in 2013. In a playoff loss against Broad Street, he carried the ball 25 times for 200 yards. Couple that with defense (four tackles in that game) and it’s quite a load, at least a triple threat. He doesn’t plan on slowing down in his final prep season.
“If you had five or six of those kids like him, you’d have a great team without a doubt every year,” first-year Falkner coach Quess Hood said. “He’s a coach on offense. We only have two coaches. He sees things and recommends. I trust him enough to run it.”
As good his offensive numbers are – Stroupe completed 85 of 174 and rushed a team-high 162 times – he also threw 15 picks. His study habits should help that decrease.
Student of the game
“He’s a competitor,” Hood said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve never had a lot of high school kids that can sit down and watch film and get a lot out of film … he’s one that can.”
Stroupe now stands at 6-foot-1 and weighs 180 pounds and doesn’t mind lowering a shoulder to deliver payback as a linebacker for a sack.
“I was always run over in little league,” Stroupe said. “I just look back at that for motivation. I like running people over, setting the tone for the game.”
BY BRANDON SPECK
MEMPHIS – They’re controversial, with long hair, beards and a powerful message that scares a lot of people and gives a lot of people joy.
Jesus Christ and rock ‘n’ roll have a lot more in common than many Christians believe. And Christians are more prevalent than ever in mainstream heavy metal.
Many Christians won’t use God and heavy music in the same sentence. Rock has always lived with a devilish stigma. From the time Elvis Presley started shaking his hips, to Kiss’ makeup to professing Christian Alice Cooper’s snake to Marilyn Manson’s brand, rock music terrifies many church-goers.
But on the stages of last week’s Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival in Memphis, there were plenty of Christ followers who have followed His call into heavy music.
And while “Christian” band isn’t an accurate term to describe every band that happens to have a Christian in it, it’s also inaccurate to dismiss heavy music as another tool of God.
“All I know is that I was on my way to Hell – and I know that that’s not a popular thing to believe anymore, in Hell – but I was on my way there and I’ve been forgiven,” said Mikey Carvajal, lead singer of rising nu metal band Islander. “That’s the only difference. I asked for forgiveness and I believe Christ offers that. That’s not what we’re selling in this band. That’s my personal life.”
God’s calls for His people go all over, from mission work to business to sports to education. And to the chagrin of some older Christian thought processes, metal music. And Carvajal isn’t pushing his faith as a means to sell records. He’s not preaching from stages, but his world view naturally comes through in his lyrics. And he’s not alone.
Nu metal band Korn has sold nearly 40 million records worldwide. In 2005, guitarist Brian “Head” Welch left the band, announcing he had found God and was dedicating his life to Christianity. He wrote a book, titled Save Me From Myself, documenting near-death drug addiction and chronicling early years of hard-living in Korn that had one of his feet in his grave. Four years later, bassist Reggie “Fieldy” Arvizu released a book about his new-found life with Christ. Fieldy remained in the band and in 2013, Head returned.
“It’s great that Head and Fieldy turned themselves around and found God,” Korn drummer Ray Luzier said from Memphis’ festival stop. ”It’s a great, especially Head. He was really going down some wacky paths, that could have led to death, you never know. It’s awesome to like see a Bible, instead of like a porno sitting on the (bus).”
Korn – every member is now clean and sober – still makes albums with parental advisory labels. But companies with Christian leaders still have employees who would come with the same label. Head and Fieldy happen to be Christians God has put in a metal band. Metalcore band Miss May I lead singer Levi Benton is a Christian touring the world and playing shows in front of people with his beliefs and people far from them.
Some see Devil’s Horns, rock music’s symbol, as literal. Others, including Christians who love heavy music, see it simply as a symbol of something they love. Latin metal band Ill Nino is widely considered secular.
“Music should have a message. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. If your message is about God and Christ, great,” said Ill Nino guitarist Diego Verduzco, raised Catholic. “Music is supposed to be what sets us free. It’s supposed to be our art. If your message is about God, great. If your message is about partying, cool.”
BY BRANDON SPECK
OXFORD – As if Oxford wasn’t already scary enough, the Chargers took down South Panola to kick off the 2014 season.
With 1:03 left in a scrimmage at Ole Miss, junior receiver and Ole Miss commit D.K. Metcalf caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Jack Abraham in a 14-10 win against the 6A giant.
Oxford scored its first touchdown on a short run by Kenzie Phillips.
Both scores came late, after a first quarter that wasn’t near scary enough for Oxford coach Johnny Hill.
“To be honest with you, I’m kind of upset on how we started this game,” Hill said. “We just didn’t play hard. We didn’t play aggressive. We didn’t play with reckless abandon.”
After a controversial targeting call on South Panola’s next possession, Oxford defensive end Marcel Pegues sacked Tigers quarterback Tyler Pogue twice late in the scrimmage to foil any comeback hopes.
New Albany 14, Kossuth 12
New Albany held on despite Kossuth lineman Blake Arnold’s 72-yard fumble return to the end zone as time expired. The Bulldogs stopped a two-point conversion.
“Every play’s a big play,” Kossuth coach Brian Kelly said. “I thought we struggled a little bit in the first quarter defensively getting accustomed to the game and playing on this field.”
Braudrique Boyd caught three passes for 38 yards and a touchdown for New Albany, including the game’s first score from Bryce Collins.
“It’s the same thing we struggled with last year, finishing ballgames, finishing drives,” New Albany coach Ron Price said. “Some great things, our defense had a great goal line stand.”
North Panola 30, Booneville 0
Booneville coach Mike Mattox let his team know there wasn’t much to smile about.
“We had a lot of new faces and some of them thought they were coming to a picnic,” Mattox said.
Panola scored early and often and bright spots were few, outside of Tyrece Bell’s second-quarter interception.
“It let us see real quick what we needed to work on,” Mattox said. “The only pleasant thing was our kicking.”
Clinton transfer Austin Holloway had plenty of chances to punt and made a field goal in the junior varsity quarter.
BY BRANDON SPECK
SALTILLO – If you hit Diamante Pounds, just know he can now return the blow.
Pounds, Saltillo’s nearly 6-foot, 218-pound bruising back, will also play outside linebacker for the Tigers.
He played there nearly the whole playoff game last season at Callaway, the first time in his career. Tigers coach Pat Byrd says he was the best player on the field for 31⁄2 quarters.
“He gave out a little bit at the end, but he wasn’t conditioned to do it,” Byrd said.
He is now. After transferring from Shannon after his sophomore season, he rushed for a state-fourth 2,039 yards and 20 touchdowns. He’ll still play special teams again, plus get his 20-25 carries per game.
He likes it now, but Pounds was admittedly a little apprehensive about it. But Byrd says he is a natural linebacker and caught on quickly.
“It’s fun, just helping my team out some more. I watch a lot of football,” Pounds said. “I learned to see how they scheme and run full speed toward the ball.”
Scary thought about a guy Byrd said was strong when he arrived at Saltillo and has gotten stronger.
“You watch him in drills, he understands angles. It’s instinct,” Byrd said. “He knows what to do. It’s nothing I’ve done. He took to it pretty easily. He’s a football player. Football players just want to play where you put them.”
Byrd is hoping to getting a couple of quarters defensively, or maybe play him more situationally and Pounds is willing to do whatever. He has a personal goal of more yards this season, but says he’s happy to expend his energy on defense if that’s what will help Saltillo get to a third straight playoffs and maybe out of the first round for the first time as a Class 5A school.
Pounds says playing so much offense has eased the transition and if he delivers a hit on a running back that may also be playing defense against him, he’s fine with being a target. He’s used to it – and likes it.
“I like getting hit. I don’t mind getting hit a little,” he said.
BY BRANDON SPECK
HOUSTON – Houston is excited about its defense.
The Hilltoppers will hit anybody at anytime, day or night. Even each other, at midnight.
For the third straight season, Houston held its first practice in pads just after the stroke of the clock.
The first two times were hard hitting and intense. Senior outside linebacker Damian Fields didn’t expect anything less.
“Even harder,” Fields said before taking the field.
In four different stations, it was all hitting as groups rotated, before joining together to line up linemen and a back for defenders to tackle.
Bruising senior fullback Brandon Townsend did his hitting with the ball. Fields is the Toppers’ leading returning tackler, with 106 and a returning team-high 15 tackles-for-loss. He will be one key on a defense that returns two of its top three tacklers.
Junior defensive back Tay Bowden had 80 tackles as a sophomore. Defensive end J.J. Brownlee had 67 and 13 for loss. He couldn’t be in the contact after suffering a lacerated cornea during Thursday practice.
“These guys are giving it all they got,” said Brownlee, a three-year starter who is expected to be healed and ready this week as Houston prepares for a scrimmage Friday at West Lowndes against Bessemer (Ala.) Academy.
The hits keep fans coming for the early-morning work, again a large crowd. “It’s something to get excited about, get out and it’s fun,” Houston coach William Cook said. “Everybody wants to get a peek of what we’ve got going.”
McQuary, who has become an interception machine (15 his first two seasons), was out, too. He had Tommy John after a baseball injury, but is expected to be cleared by Week 2. Junior Kavonta Marble is expected to be a force in the secondary.
Physical defense should be the strong point of a team with a pair of quarterbacks who have yet to take a snap, sophomore Taylor Baskins and freshman Urriah Sheperd.
Houston is trying to rebound from a 1-11 season, a year after going 11-3. “Defense is our strength. We’ve got a lot of players out there,” Cook said. “We’re going to be rolling people in just to try to keep people fresh.”
BELDEN – Losing last football season before it began came with costs. But it has also recharged a desire for Friday nights at Tupelo Christian Prep.
“It gave us a whole year of teaching. I think people at TCPS are once again hungry for football,” third-year coach Shaune Holiday said. “So we’re looking forward to that Friday night experience and I think it’s really going to help.”
Still a growing program in its eighth year, TCPS had 17 players when it felt it was in the best safety interest of the players to call off the season. There are now 25 in fall practice. They’ll still have to play both sides of the ball and that may not seem like that many more.
“You’ll be able to get a break this year,” Holiday said. “When you’ve got 25, you can put somebody out to cover somebody when they need a break.”
TCPS will play an independent, eight-game schedule before rejoining an MHSAA division next season.
“Winning is important, but right now winning’s not the main thing when you’re independent,” Holiday said. “This gives us a chance to learn the game of football and go through those growing pains while we’re young. It matters, but you can’t make the playoffs.
“It gives us a chance to gain confidence, to go out and win a few ballgames. We’ll hopefully win eight ballgames.”
Holiday hired former Tupelo and South Panola coordinator David Wilkerson to install a new offense.
Some of the season will go back to fundamentals, but the Eagles aren’t starting from scratch. They still practiced every day last season and played a couple junior varsity games.
Two of the fallen season’s casualties were Clayton Knight, a sophomore, and Luke Hudson, a senior, both now at Saltillo.
“The goal is to win eight ballgames,” Holiday said. “But let’s be honest. After the year last year and (winless) year before that, anything is an upside.”
New Site has spent a lot of money to make all those Jackson trips to the MHSAA state girls basketball tournament.
From 2008 to 2013, the Lady Royals went to five straight. That’s a total of nine trips – 10 if you count a coaches scouting trip. Keep track even further and it’s “around 12” trips, coach Byron Sparks said.
It’s tough to keep up with all the successes, but it’s easy to keep up with how many outsiders footed the bills. None.
So when a couple of football coaches in South Mississippi selfishly said the high school activities association should help south teams pay their way to Starkville if their teams make it to December’s state championship games, you’ll have to pardon the snickers from the north.
“We didn’t get it. We would have liked to have gotten it if that would have been an option,” Sparks said, “but if you’re playing in the state tournament, we’re willing to do whatever we’ve got to do to get there and play it.”
That never crossed anyone’s mind at New Site. No one north of Jackson has publicly complained about the multiple hotel stays, multiple nights of eating out and multiple trips to the pump.
Sparks didn’t have the figures in front of him, but he does have it and he said it’s a lot.
Same goes in Houston, where the fast-pitch team has made a 148-mile trip three straight years for softball championship series. And they’d do it if it was 348 miles.
If the Hilltoppers’ football team is fortunate enough to make it, coach William Cook will find the money, not ask MHSAA boss Don Hinton for a hand.
“Smaller sports travel all over the state,” Cook said. “I haven’t known a school not going if they get there. That’s part of it.”
So while football teams – five from Northeast Mississippi last season – made the three or four-hour trip to Veterans Memorial Stadium and Baldwyn, Booneville, Byers, Corinth and Ripley routinely plan vacations around basketball tournament trips and Kossuth goes to Pearl for three straight three-game series, teams from the south and central parts of the state are finally starting to feel the travel pinch.
Hinton, the MHSAA’s executive director, said he’d consider helping with the costs. But will he backpay?
“You would want it. It would be fair,” Sparks said.
Sparks grinned, almost joking as he said such. Because neither New Site nor any other North Mississippi schools have asked for it. And they probably wouldn’t even if Hinton opens that box.
At New Site, the parents pay. The school pays. The boosters pay.
And if even one southern school isn’t willing to pay a little more and drive a bit farther for an opportunity for their kids to play on an SEC field, it’s more about a selfishness than it is an issue of location.