Lineup Includes Sophomore Quarterback, Other Starters
By Reid Bankston
WATER VALLEY – Coming off an 11-3 season, the Water Valley Blue Devils are looking to take that next step as a program. Under fourth year head coach Brad Embry, the Blue Devils have increased their win total and advanced further in the playoffs each season. The 2010 season came to a heartbreaking end, as Water Valley fell 10-7 at home to bitter foe Winona.
“It was really hard, it was upsetting. They went out there and played hard, and we just waited too late. We have to be prepared for teams like that, and we’ve been hitting the weight room so we will be,” said senior Chris Conard.
With the graduation of senior standouts J.D. Fondon and Eric Buckley, there are holes to be filled, but expectations among the Blue Devil coaches and players is another deep playoff run that hopefully ends with a trip to Jackson.
Coming into the 2010 season, questions were plentiful surrounding the quarterback position for Water Valley. In 2011, those questions appear to have been diminished thanks to the development of sophomore E.J. Bounds. Bounds threw for nine touchdowns and 822 yards in his debut season, in addition to rushing for 492 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. The negative of Bounds first year came in the accuracy department, completing only 39 percent of his passes and throwing 7 interceptions, although Embry expects big improvement from his quarterback this season.
“We’ve had talks throughout the off-season about picking it up a notch. He’s got experience, so we expect a lot out of him,” said Embry. “I think we’ll be able to throw the ball more. He had a really good off-season throwing the football. I expect that to make us more versatile.”
With the graduation of Eric Buckley, Zenty Allen, and Torrey Horton, the Blue Devils must replace 2,233 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground. Seniors C.J. Jackson and Kenon Kirkwood have the most experience, accounting for a combined 409 yards and four touchdowns, but their 41 combined carries is considerably less than the 382 shared by Buckley, Allen, and Horton.
“Obviously we lost some good players, but that’s everybody every year,” said Embry. “C.J. (Jackson) made plays running the ball last year and Kenon (Kirkwood) made some plays, so we’ll be relying on them some, but they also play a lot of defense.”
Embry hopes he will be able to find a go to running back in order to lighten the load for Jackson and Kirkwood, with two transfers and a sophomore striving to fill that role.
“We’ve got some young guys coming up that have really worked hard. Cortaveus Hawkins is going to be a good running back for us. Jarard Smith has moved in and he’s going to run the ball and Jeoffry Gordon has moved in as well, so we’ll add them to what we’ve already got,” said Embry.
With Bounds’ continued progression as a quarterback, Water Valley hopes to be able to stretch the field a little more in 2011. Devin Fleming and Chris Conard are both capable targets with big play ability, but that is barely reflected in last year’s numbers. Conard and Fleming combined for only 202 yards and two touchdowns.
“Devin (Fleming) had a really good summer. He got better running routes and catching the football. We’re expecting him to really help us,” said Embry. “Cole Camp, K.J. Lee, and James Washington are three sophomores that we really expect to help us as well, they’ve played some football, whether it be in junior high or for us last year.”
Although the passing game should be better in 2011, Water Valley will continue to win or lose it with the running game.
“I would like to see us rack up 2000 or more yards rushing for the regular season. I want us to be very physical and have multiple pancake blocks,” said offensive line coach Clint Faust.
Both Faust and Embry have been impressed with the depth they have accumulated along the offensive line, both expecting to rotate players quite a bit.
“I think we have more depth (Offensive Line) than we’ve had since I’ve been here, and that creates competition,” said Embry. “That’s a good thing, because the cream will rise to the top.”
Faust is excited about not only the depth of the offensive line, but a couple of younger players who have put their marker down as potential leaders.
“I think our young center Montez Hariston could win out the starting job at center and surprise some folks but he has some big shoes to fill. Our vocal leaders right now are Denzell Jones and Taylor Edwards,” said Faust. “If these two young men ever “flip the switch” they will be hard to handle.”
For the first time in quite a while, defensive line coach Mix doesn’t have to worry about who he has to replace along his defensive front. Returning O’Kedrik Camp-bell and Justin McCammon, Mix believes the defensive line, often times the unsung heroes of the “Wrecking Crew” defense, may step into the spotlight this season.
“I feel like O’Kedrik Campbell and Justin McCammon could be the strong point of the defense this year, and then you have B.J. White and Ranaldo Smith who played a lot last year,” said Mix. “I issued a challenge to them after Christmas to get busy in the weight room, and those guys have really gotten stronger. I feel like we’ll be even better than we were last year.”
Combined, Campbell and McCammon accounted for 167 tackles and 17 sacks in 2010, and Mix is hopeful that the hard work his unit has put in this off-season will be helpful when the new season begins next week.
“Justin (McCammon) works so hard and it runs down to everybody else, you know what you’re going to get out of him.”
Replacing J.D. Fondon’s 186 tackles and six sacks won’t be easy, but that’s the unenviable task facing Water Valley defensive coordinator Richard Russo.
“You can not replace (Fondon,) but I’m not trying to. I want people to step up and do what they do best,” said Russo.
The main candidate to replace Fondon’s production is his understudy for the last two years C.J. Jackson. Jackson pitched in 150 tackles and 14.5 sacks of his own last year, and according to Embry, the senior is more than capable of stepping up to the plate.
“(Jackson) is a great football player, he plays the game the way it was meant to be played when they invented football. When they made linebackers, they said C.J. Jackson. He’s gotten stronger and faster and he’s going to be a leader for us,” said Embry.
At the other linebacker spots will be junior Quinterrio Bailey, who had 100 tackles in 2010, and transfer Jarard Smith. Jackson believes although Fondon is a massive loss, that Bailey is ready for a big season.
“Quinterrio has good experience and he’s getting better. We can be the dominate duo that me and J.D. were,” said Jackson.
Much maligned in the past, the Water Valley secondary finally showed what they were capable off last season. Returning from that successful unit are the dynamic duo of safety Kenon Kirkwood and cornerback Chris Conard, who combined for 151 tackles and four interceptions in 2010.
“Anytime the ball is thrown into (Conard’s) area, there is a chance he can take it to the house,” said Russo. “(Kirkwood) may not intercept the ball if you come across the middle, but he’s going to hit you and inflict some pain.”
Devin Fleming is expected to start opposite of Kirkwood at the other safety position, while the other cornerback spot is a three way battle between the inexperienced trio of Camp, Lee, and Washington.
“I expect a lot from the young guys, our team is really young, but some of those guys are going to have to stand up,” said Conard. “This is my last year; I have to make sure I’m a leader. Like (Buckley) did last year, I have to be the leader of the whole secondary. I want to do everything I can for this team.”
An In-Depth Look At Key Positions
By Reid Bankston
While the Water Valley coaching staff has tried to reign in the expectations for the sophomore signal caller, Bounds should be poised for a breakout year. In his first year as a starter, Bounds threw nine touchdowns and seven interceptions, completing only 39 percent, which at times stifled the Blue Devil offense.
However, on the ground, Bounds provided a dynamic weapon in the Water Valley attack, rushing 492 yards and 11 touchdowns. Water Valley head coach Brad Embry has never hidden the fact that he would like for his offense to provide more of an aerial threat, and Bounds has the potential to make that happen in 2011. For the Blue Devils to better their 11-3 record from last season, it is imperative that Bounds be able to stretch the field, taking pressure off of a group of inexperienced running backs.
With the graduation of Zenty Allen, Torrey Horton, and Eric Buckley, Bounds will also be relied on to at least match his 2010 rushing output, as it is unclear who will be Water Valley’s go to running back. If Bounds can take the experience he gained in Water Valley’s successful 2010 season and match it with his undoubted physical tools, this version of the Blue Devil offense could be Embry’s most productive yet.
It’s hard to imagine more being expected from a player that accounted for 150 tackles in 2010, but such is the case for C.J. Jackson. With the graduation of J.D. Fondon, the Water Valley defense will have to find a way to replace 186 tackles, instincts, and leadership.
A large portion of that responsibility will be shifted onto the shoulders of Jackson. Arguably more physically gifted than Fondon, the biggest challenge for Jackson will be accepting the leadership role on the “Wrecking Crew” defense. Nobody was a harder critic on Fondon than himself, and Jackson must accept that mindset going into 2011.
Quinterrio Bailey will make Jackson’s life a lot easier once the play begins, after all the sophomore accounted for 100 tackles himself last season, but it will be up to Jackson to quarterback the defense in between snaps.
If replacing Fondon wasn’t daunting enough, Jackson could also feature more prominently on offense. Embry has always been hesitant to use his defensive stars on offense, but at least early on in the season, the fourth year head coach may not have much of a choice. Jackson is a powerful runner, capable of grinding out the yardage lost by the graduation of Buckley, Allen, and Horton, and he will certainly need to do that until one of Water Valley’s young running backs steps up to carry the load full time.
10 receptions, 119 yards, and two receiving touchdowns is all Water Valley was able to get out of Chris Conard in 2010. For arguably the Blue Devils most explosive player, that is not nearly enough and more should be expected from Conard in 2011.
With the maturation of Bounds, look for Embry to try to find more ways to get the ball in Conard’s hands. As important as Bounds’ play is for Water Valley’s offensive success, the establishment of Conard as a go to target should also be a high priority for the Blue Devils.
On the defensive side of the ball, Conard is already established as one of Water Valley’s best playmakers. Four interceptions and 75 tackles came from Conard alone, and as the most experienced player in the secondary for the “Wrecking Crew,” those numbers should grow in 2011.
If Kenon Kirkwood can continue his development and match his 76 tackle total from last season, Conard should be freed up to use his natural ball hawking ability to provide big plays for the Water Valley defense.
Key Games Important For Championship Bid
By Reid Bankston
Water Valley opens the season with a road trip to Independence and a home rivalry game against Coffeeville, but the season’s first true test should come when Calhoun City comes to town in early September. Coming off a 15-1 season and a two point loss in the 2A state championship game, the Wildcats will put Water Valley’s state championship credentials to the test early.
Turnovers and a missed field goal late in last year’s meeting cost the Blue Devils dearly, as the Wildcats edged out a 10-7 victory. In terms of division seeding or playoff hopes, this game means nothing, but rest assured, the Blue Devil coaching staff and players will know just how much further they need to go to get to a state championship after this game.
At Water Valley
Water Valley opens division play with road trips to Mooreville and South Pontotoc, two games they should be favored to win. If all goes according to plan, Water Valley could have a chance of all but ensuring themselves at least second place in the division when this game comes around. Nettleton meets Aberdeen the week before, so the Tigers should be in desperate need of a win by the time this game comes around. Last year’s meeting was decided by an Alex Robles field goal in overtime that gave Water Valley the 23-20 lead, but Nettleton returns a lot of speed on offense, which gave the Blue Devils fits last season. This game should be tight, and the loser here may very well be out of the division title hunt.
At Water Valley
It’s no secret who is still king in the North Half of 3A. The Aberdeen Bulldogs have represented the north the last two years in the state championship game in Jackson, and as the old saying goes, if you want to be the man, you have to beat the man.
“Right now, Aberdeen is the team to beat in our division and our guys are trying to outwork them every day. As far as taking the next step I think we are right there,” said offensive line coach Clint Faust. The task of dethroning Aberdeen is mountainous, as the Bulldogs are once again heavy favorites to make it to Jackson this season. Led by arguably the state’s top player Channing Ward, a defensive end/tight end that holds scholarship offers from LSU, Alabama, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss among many others, Aberdeen returns a large portion of last year’s team that averaged 40.8 points per game last season en route to a 14-2 record.
This game is more important for physiological reasons more than anything else, because in all likelihood, Water Valley would still have to beat Aberdeen in the playoffs to advance to Jackson, but if the Blue Devils can at least show marked improvement against Aberdeen in the regular season, it should give Brad Embry’s squad much needed belief in the playoffs.