JACKSON — Can Jackson State coaches instill discipline in their players? Can Mississippi Valley State stop anyone on defense? And have the players at Alcorn State put the school’s bizarre coaching carousel behind them?
The key questions are different for each of Mississippi’s three Southwestern Athletic Conference teams as they open the 2009 season and so are the challenges.
While Jackson State is seeking to advance to its third straight SWAC title game, MVSU and Alcorn State are looking to regroup from disappointing seasons — one with a veteran coach and the other with a first-year coach for the second straight season.
At Alcorn State, players had to deal with the firing of first-year coach Ernest T. Jones.
The Braves were 2-10 last year, but lost six games by a touchdown or less and four games in the final minute.
The school promoted defensive coordinator Earnest Collins Jr. to head coach after Jones’ firing. It was a true reversal of fortune for Collins, who was one of seven assistants fired before Jones’ dismissal, then reinstated.
Nevertheless, Collins feels that his incoming freshman class is one of the best in the SWAC and that his team is coming together.
“There seems to be a different temperament of the senior class. Players are also holding their teammates more accountable,” Collins said.
Quarterback Tim Buckley, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound junior, returns after throwing for 1,351 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Alcorn State was fourth in total offense in the SWAC.
At Jackson State, coach Rick Comegy is focused on discipline, teaching and Christian fellowship. And that’s understandable considering last season when the Tigers racked up 88 penalties for 808 yards, averaging a SWAC-worst 115.4 yards a game.
“We are going to teach, and teach, and teach until they get it. We are working on discipline every day,” Comegy said. “The guys are really bonding. We try to keep a good spirit in our camp and we read the good book a lot here. So I think you don’t have those things that you would normally have if the guys have fellowship with Christian athletes and get along.”
On the field, the Tigers return a lot of talent with 10 offensive and seven defensive starters coming back from a team that finished 7-5 and 6-1 in the SWAC. Jackson State won the SWAC East Division, but lost 41-9 to Grambling in the conference title game.
The Tigers ranked second in total defense in the SWAC, but must replace several key players, including linebacker Marcellus Speaks, who led the conference with 115 tackles.
“We lost some great players. We realize that. We are really pushing this group here to step it up and be accountable so we don’t miss a beat,” Comegy said.
On offense, Trae Rutland, a 6-3, 230-pound quarterback, returns with more offensive linemen on the roster and experience at receiver. The offensive line wasn’t a strength last year and Rutland often struggled to connect with a group of inexperienced wideouts.
Comegy said he focused on the offensive line in recruiting and receivers like 6-3 sophomore Marcellos Wilder are maturing. While freshman receiver Rico Richardson, from Natchez, has been the biggest surprise in the preseason, Comegy said.
“When you’ve got guys that know what they’re doing and you’ve got some experience and a few more athletes in camp it is going to be a lift to the quarterback,” Comegy said.
At Valley, Willie Totten, who is in his eighth season as head coach, is hoping that quarterback Paul Roberts can be his leader and help the Delta Devils improve after their second straight 3-8 season. Roberts showed flashes of that late last year.
“I think what hurt Paul last year is that Paul came in out of shape. I think Paul came in anticipating that he didn’t have to work as hard to be the starter,” Totten said.
“He’s matured. I like the way he feels that this is his team. He feels that his leadership is there. Now, I think he understands the role of a quarterback.”
But for Valley to have a winning season, its defense must improve. Valley was last in total defense in the SWAC in 2008, giving up 485.6 yards and 40.3 points per game.
“Last year we were extremely young. We started seven freshmen last year on defense. We just couldn’t stop anybody,” Totten said. “We were forced to play players last year on defense that really weren’t ready to play and we knew that. “We’ve got a different look. Hopefully, that’s going to be the difference.”
MVSU also will look to take the pressure of Roberts with two junior running backs and their almost 500 pounds of beef coming out of the backfield.
“Milton Gaston and Stephen Robert would be our two top running backs right now. Milton Gaston is at 250. Stephen Robert is at 230,” Totten said.
Valley opens the season at Arkansas State on Sept. 5. Alcorn State will face Southern Mississippi in its first game Sept. 5 in Hattiesburg. Jackson State will open the season at Mississippi State Sept. 5 in Starkville.
Timothy R. Brown/The Associated Press