Recruiting Mississippi

Lamenting the one that got away is ordinarily reserved for fishing tales. But a bass that spits the hook only hurts your feelings. When a big fish gets away in the football recruiting world, it can come back to bite.

Over the years, Alabama has had Georgia natives come up big in wins over Georgia and Georgia Tech, men from Florida help beat the Gators, Tennesseeans have big games against Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and on and on.

And it occasionally cuts the other way. Older fans can remember Auburn's Ronnie Ross of Tuscaloosa moving from tight end to shore up a depleted linebacker corps for the Tigers in 1970. Alabama appeared to be on its way to a comfortable lead when Ross intercepted a pass and turned momentum into an Auburn victory.

As the Crimson Tide prepares to battle Ole Miss this week, there is a lot of attention on a handful of Bama players who prepped in Mississippi. It could be particularly nettlesome for the Rebels since two Bama players, including one starter, are from Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi. Additionally, Alabama signed Mr. Football from the state of Mississippi each of the past two years.

One of those Mississippi Mr. Football honorees, Jimmy Johns, had a critical play in last year's win over Mississippi State. Johns caused a fumble on the second half kickoff that was picked up by Matt Miller and run in for a touchdown in the Tide's 17-0 win over the Bulldogs.

Johns is Alabama's back-up tailback. Last week he scored the first touchdown of his Alabama career, going in from two yards out as the Crimson Tide pulled away from Duke in the fourth quarter.

"Right now I'm 3-0 against Mississippi schools and by the time I'm done I want to be 9-0 against them," Johns said.

Alabama beat Southern Miss, Ole Miss and Mississippi State last season, but Southern Miss dropped off of Bama's schedule after last year. Alabama will play Ole Miss and Mississippi State in each of the next three seasons.

Alabama hosts Ole Miss at 2:30 p.m. CDT Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium in a Southeastern Conference game. CBS will televise the contest. Bama is 4-2 overall and 1 2 in SEC play. The Rebels are 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the league.

Mississippi Head Coach Ed Orgeron tried to get Johns to become a Rebel, but it was ‘too little, too late' after he gave his commitment to Alabama.

"Right after my visit to Alabama and the next morning I had seven coaches in my living room," Johns said. "He had taken all of them off the road to come and recruit me. Coach Orgeron is a good guy. When he did recruit me he was fun."

Sparky Woods, Alabama's running backs coach and the man who recruited Johns to Alabama said, "He told us he was coming and he never did waiver. He's always done what he said he was going to do and I think it has worked out well for him."

Johns led Brookhaven to the Mississippi 4A state championship and was the all-state quarterback.

"There were a lot of people in town that wanted me to stay, but I love it here," Johns said. "I want my kids to go here and my grandkids to go here."

Jeffrey Dukes is Alabama's starting strong safety. He prepped at Lafayette High School in Oxford, Mississippi, where he was his team's MVP on both offense and defense. His house was close enough that he could ride his bike to Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium when he was a kid.

Dukes said he also felt pressure to stay in state, mostly from people in his hometown who didn't have all the facts.

"What they fail to realize is that Ole Miss didn't want me," Dukes said. "I was wondering what I did wrong. (Former Ole Miss Head) Coach (David) Cutcliffe didn't want me, and after my first year of junior college I didn't want to go there."

After a year at Northwest Community College in Senatobia, Mississippi, Dukes was recruited by Woods and signed with Alabama. Last year he had a pass interception against Southern Miss and is currently Alabama's co-leading tackler, tied with Juwan Simpson at 36 tackles.

"Jeff has gotten better each and every week," Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula said. "He's worked his way into a starting role this year, and he covers a lot of ground. He's tackled better this year, which is important, especially in special teams."

Justin Woodall is competing for playing time behind Dukes, his second cousin. Woodall, a true freshman, also played at Lafayette High in Oxford. He has played primarily on special teams this year.

"Justin is doing a good job on special teams. We think he's got a very bright future. He's got the size to play like a linebacker and he's got the speed to cover receivers," Shula said.

"We're lucky to have both of them."

Ole Miss doesn't have to worry about last year's Mr. Football, at least not this year. Terry Grant, a halfback from Lumberton, Mississippi, is out this year with a shoulder injury that required surgery. He'll return to practice in the spring. Shula said Grant's rehabilitation is going well.

Last year Bama also signed Milton Talbert, a defensive end from Hattiesburg. He is being redshirted this season.

Shula said, "Recruiting is a battle. We've been fortunate (in Mississippi) the last couple of years. It's more competitive than a football game. They want to keep their guys home. And they also want to try to come over here and get some of our guys. So we're trying to keep the Alabama guys at home and also slip over there and get a few from Mississippi."

Shula said the key to recruiting success out of state is "communication. We want to get them here to see our tradition and our facilities and talk to our coaches. I think Coach Woods does an excellent job over there. Coach (Buddy) Wyatt is also over there. I think sometimes when you have some success that can lead to more success in certain schools in certain areas."

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