Rodriguez Moore rushed for more than 1,300 yards as a freshman and will be counted on for even more this season by East Mississippi CC. / Special to The Clarion-Ledger
Don't get it confused.
Yes, East Mississippi Community College football coach Buddy Stephens appreciates the national No. 1 ranking that his team carries into the 2012 season.
"You enjoy it because it gives you solace in knowing that people know you have a good program," said Stephens.
But, he knows with the lofty ranking come high expectations.
"It puts a lot of pressure on you and the kids," he continued. "It puts the bulls-eye square in the middle of your back. We know we are going to get everybody's best game. But they don't give you trophies and they don't give you rings at the beginning of the season. We aren't going to stay at No. 1 very long if we don't play well."
The Lions are the defending national champions after last season's 12-0 season that was capped off by a thrilling 55-47 victory over Arizona Western (11-0) in the El Toro Bowl.
But in order to repeat, the Lions will have to do so without quarterback Bo Wallacee, last season's national Player of the Year. Wallace, now at Ole Miss, threw for a whopping 4,604 yards and 53 touchdowns last season.
Stephens is often asked how he'll replace a quarterback who put up such prolific numbers.
"We were asked that about Randall Mackey and we were asked that about Jimmy Oliver when we were at Pearl River," Stephens said. "You just keep recruiting and looking for guys to fit in your program. There is always going to be another guy to come down the pipe. But Bo was a very special player and you're not going to find another Bo."
Former Starkville High standout Jaquez Johnson or Laurel grad Dontreal Pruitt will play quarterback.
"They are two great kids that are great athletes," said Stephens. "I feel really good about where we are there."
Running back Rodriguez Moore will help shoulder much of the load after rushing for 1,303 yards as a freshman.
The Lions lost eight sophomore starters from last year, but they also gained some key newcomers.
Nick Brassell, who starred at both receiver and defensive back at Ole Miss, joins the team. Defensive lineman Darious Cummings (Florida State) also joins the mix. A third transfer, Mike Bellamy (Clemson) would have been a huge boost in the backfield, but Stephens dismissed him from the team earlier this month for "violation of team policy."
Shaquille Fluker (committed to Georgia) and Justin Cox (MSU commit) will man a solid secondary.
"We are probably faster than we were this time last year," said Stephens. "We have a lot of good athletes from all over the state. We are probably a little diverse since the state is more open. We got a lot of kids back from a winning team and that's important. Our guys are confident and they are good football players."
East Mississippi is one of four schools in the state ranked in the NJCAA preseason top 20 poll.
The others are Gulf Coast (4), Hinds (6) and Northwest (11).
starting out ranked
Four Mississippi teams open the 2012 season ranked in the NJCAA top 20:
East Mississippi 1st
Gulf Coast 4th