After a spring training-less pre-season, a cautious and carefully monitored summer, and an eventual reduction to schedule, all at the mercy of merciless and indiscriminate COVID-19, the 2020 George County Rebels are locked, offensively loaded and ready to roll, even with a persistent unease toward the world's current state.
George County is certainly looking the part on paper, as 21 seniors and a spread offense that returns all five starting linemen, all starters at the inside and outside receiving positions, tailback Trent Howell, who led the team in rushing with 111 carries for 641 yards (5.8 per carry) and 10 touchdowns, and the school's sixth Jackson Clarion-Ledger Football Dandy Dozen selection, quarterback/wide receiver/cornerback M.J. Daniels, lead the way for a team who finished with an overall record of 7-5, and a Class 6A playoff appearance that was three years in the making.
The Rebels will look to build off of the same momentum in 2019 that included wins such as a 24-0 shutout of archrival Greene County, and a 24-20 outlasting of 6A Runner-Up Oak Grove. Defensively the team returns just three starters, and amidst the obvious graduation of Texas A&M signee and GCHS Dandy Dozen number five, McKinnley Jackson. Blaine Morris (47 tackles, nine tackles for loss) will suit up again at linebacker, only this time to the inside. Jonheim Nix (40 tackles, one interception, five pass deflections) will help lead at cornerback and Landon Hayden (five tackles, two tackles for loss) will be the lone returnee on the defensive line. George County will line up in a 3-4 scheme.
Twenty-six year coaching veteran James Ray enters his first year as the program leader after spending the last four as defensive coordinator in Lucedale. Heading a 6A team is seemingly difficult enough, but 2020 continues to be unrelenting, as he has already faced the unwelcoming challenge of last-second schedule changes, to name just one coronavirus-related issue of many.
"In 6A football there are 12 regular season games, and most everybody takes an off week so you really only play 11," Ray said. "If you look at it that way, we only lost one game and we're still going to play 10. We don't have an off week this year. We picked up D'Iberville (9/18) in what would've been our off week from the schedule from last year, so we really only lost one game. Ten games is plenty, and it's my personal opinion that we should only play 10 games anyway."
After being forced to drop the first two games of the season, two homers against West Jones and Greene County, the Rebels will open official, full-game play at Pascagoula on September 4. Ray admits the Greene County game hurts both financially and emotionally for coaches, players and fans alike, but the annual 'Battle for the Bell' will still be on the line even in a two-quarter, jamboree format, due to popular demand.
"The big deal is we don't get to play Greene County this year in a full game. We do play them this Friday in a jamboree which will only be two quarters, so that's disappointing that we don't get to continue that rivalry this year as a full game. But, it is Greene County, so we were excited to get them in the jamboree which was the only available date we could've played them and that's better than nothing. The reason we put it as a jamboree was because they didn't have an open date, so we couldn't get anything swapped around. I even tried to get Pascagoula and Ocean Springs to swap into our open date to fill in, but it never worked out. Governor (Tate) Reeves kind of snapped things in half for us by only allowing two people per player to attend games, but we're still going to make more money with Greene County than we would with anyone else, so it is what it is."
Along with the major changes, the George County coaching staff will look a little different as well across the board, and Ray has both high expectations and a strong faith in his assistants.
"Alonzo (Lawrence) is still coaching our secondary and we've also put him in charge of special teams. What he brings to the table in our secondary, I've never been around another coach who can do what we do in the secondary and get it taught like he can get it taught, so he's a tremendous asset.
Coach Kenneth Burns is coaching outside receivers this year and working real closely with our offensive coordinator, doing a tremendous job.
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Coach Tyler Smith is new to us coming from Perry Central. He coaches the slot receivers, so now we've got two coaches coaching our receivers, but they're two different animals and we're getting more one-on-one coaching there.
Coach Lance Canoy is coming from Kosciusko to coach the offensive line as a 15 year veteran and is one of the better guys coaching offensive line I've been around, so we're really excited to get him.
Coach Terry Bradley is still coaching our running backs, and he's got a stable back there with him too. It's not just one or two guys, he's got a group of about six guys that we can roll through there and we're excited about them.
Coach Chris Peterson is back for his second year as the offensive coordinator. Previously, he was at Gautier and also spent a lot of time at Mendenhall, so he brings a lot of experience. He's my age; he's got 25 years under his belt and is kind of a guy who I can lean on as a head coach because he's been the head coach before.
Coach Brittain Dean is back for his 17th year at George County, coaches the defensive line, will serve as the associate head coach and is one of the better defensive line coaches I've been around. He benefited from four years of coaching McKinnley Jackson, because we had to step out of our comfort zone and teach elite skill instruction.
Stuart Dickerson is coming from Winona and straight out of Mississippi State. He's a first year coach coaching outside linebackers and brings a lot of energy to our team as he's learning how to coach in high school.
Coach Kelly Causey is coming to us from Kosciusko as well. Before, he was at Pass Christian, St. Martin, Biloxi as an assistant, Cleveland High School and then Kosciusko before coming here. Coach Causey and I have known each other for 30-plus years. We played together at Delta State and we've been best friends since. He has invaluable defensive knowledge. I was a defensive coordinator here for four years and was really proud of what we accomplished and it had to be somebody that I completely trust to turn it over to and he's that guy."
With a solid personnel behind him both player and coach-wise, Ray still stresses the importance of being able to hold the rope for your fellow man, particularly due to the extremely volatile nature of the virus
"You've got to deal with injuries on any team in any year, and now you've got to deal with the virus. There's never been a year that's been more important to have everybody ready to play than now because you just never know. You could wake up Friday morning and everything will be good, then all of the sudden our starting quarterback is out for 14 days.
We've spent a lot of time in practice getting a lot of reps to these guys so that they can be prepared and I've told our coaching staff the same thing, that any given moment we could walk in here and not have an offensive coordinator for 14 days. Somebody has got to be able to step up and call the plays. I think it has really made us conscious of everyone understanding our playbook and one another's roles. Our coaching staff should work close enough together to where anyone could step in and call plays if needed."
Not to mention, coronavirus will also have a noticeable affect on the sidelines this season, where staff and teammates will have to create separation just a bit off of the field, too.
"With social distancing on the sideline, they've now extended the team box from the 10 to the 10,” Ray said. "Coaches will still have to stay within the 25s. It's crazy that I'm going to have team members 15 yards away from me. Water bottles can no longer be shared amongst the team. You can't have towels on the sidelines
and players who aren't in the game are recommended to be in masks. Coaches are going to be in masks on the sidelines. But all of that aside and to be more positive, we've spent a lot of time getting these guys prepared and ready and I feel confident going into this season even though we missed spring practice. We will be ready to go."
Despite the odds, high school football in Mississippi remains king. The 'Battle for the Bell' will kick off this Friday at Gill-Martin Stadium at 7 p.m.