He says this season's squad is the most athletic he has had in his previous four years in Poplarville, but youth and inexperience at key positions is all over the place.
"Athletic talent is no problem whatsoever, but we've got to have a lot of first-year guys to step up early for us to have a shot at repeating what we did a year ago," Hatten said. "It's not an absolute, but to even have a shot at an national title you can't lose a single game and in our league, anybody can beat anybody on a given date. Preparation is the key...you've got to take it one game at a time."
All-American quarterback Jimmy Oliver (pictured above; photo by Mitch Deaver), a redshirt sophomore from East Marion, returns for his final campaign in the maroon and gold and is one of four players from the MACJC to be named to this year's NJCAA first-team preseason All-American squad. Oliver literally rewrote the Wildcat record book last season and was instrumental in PRCC winning their second-straight state championship and their second-ever NJCAA national championship. Pearl River won its other title in 1961 under legendary head coach Dobie Holden.
Oliver earned first-team All-American honors last season when he passed for league-best and national second-best 3,487 yards (290.6 yards a game) in 2004's undefeated 12-0 season, while his 3,658 yards of individual total offense (304.8 yards a game) topped all comers in the NJCAA. In addition, he was a first-team All-Region 23 honoree and was named the nation's and the region's "Offensive Player of the Year" for his efforts.
"What more can you say about Jimmy," Hatten said. "His numbers and all the recognition he received last year speaks for itself. And we expect him to pick up where he left off. He should be even better this year."
Hatten says the Wildcats' talent level is incredible.
"We kind of look at it this way," he explained. "Last year, I'd say 40 of our 55 guys on our roster were truly quality players. This year we're boasting top-notch quality people from one through 55 and that's a solid indication of our staff's recruiting efforts. Nobody works any harder than us. We're a much more solid team from head to toe than we were a year ago."
As a team, Pearl River finished first in the nation last season in total passing offense with 5,202 yards (301.4 yards a game); while the team's total offensive total of 5,202 yards (433.5 yards a game) was sixth-best in the NJCAA.
But the Wildcats have suffered great personnel losses since. Gone is record-setting All-American wide receiver Larry Brackins who shattered practically every pass-catching record in school history and opted to bypass senior college offers to enter the NFL draft and was picked by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fifth round. A towering 6-foot-4, 215 pounder, Brackins snagged 55 passes for 1,093 yards — both school records — and finished his Wildcat career with 100 catches for 1,865 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Freshman Demetrius Byrd (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) of Miami, Fla., will hopefully fill the void created by Brackins' departure.
"Demetrius is probably the fastest guy to ever play here and that's saying a lot," Hatten said. "He's got only one year of high school football experience, but runs the 40 in the 4.3s and has tremendous ability."
Sophomores Brandon Fountain of Moss Point and Kyle Sellers of Oak Grove both return and eye starting berths after seeing limited action last season, while 2004 starter Jacob Garber, a sophomore also from Oak Grove; returns to the lineup after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year's season opener against Itawamba.
Incoming freshmen Nick Expose and Marcus Ware, both from Columbia High, and Ricky Smith of Oak Grove will see plenty of playing time; while Chris Wright of Oak Grove and Danny Bell of Jacksonville, Fla., will see double duty at receiver and in the defensive secondary. Like Byrd, Smith played only one season of high school ball, but snagged a whopping 60 passes — second most in the state — for coach Nevil Barr's Warriors last year.
"And we've got five quality running backs with catching abilities that will give our passing attack an added dimension in Mike McClendon, Seth Hayden, J.J. Smith, Gabe Fairman, and George Leverette," Hatten said.
McClendon, a sophomore who led the state in rushing his senior year at Quitman High School in 2003, ran for a second-best 480 yards on 75 carries last season for the Wildcats, despite missing one game with a knee injury. He produced a team-high 71 yards in PRCC's 35-14 victory over Butler CC (Kan.) in the Dalton Defenders Bowl in Coffeyville, Kan., in the national title bout.
"We consider Mike the best or one of the best runners in the league this year," Hatten said. "He's a tremendous athlete with tremendous toughness and speed."
Fairman, from Petal, and Leverette, from West Marion, are also sophomores; while Leverette will also see defensive playing time at one of the linebacking positions. Hayden and Smith are both freshmen, who prepped at Pearl River Central and Forrest County AHS, respectively.
Hatten says his offensive front is the best he's had so far, but will be chock full of first-year, inexperienced players. Returning will be starters Ryan Sefton, a tackle from Harrison Central; Scotty Dunn, a guard from Picayune High; and Tanner Graves, a guard from Sumrall. Freshmen Kevin Parker of Picayune High is expected to start at center, while guard Clint Whitley of Oak Grove and tackle Ken Evans of Philadelphia High will fill the other starting gaps.
"Ryan is one of the best o-line guys in the state and the rest of the up front guys are impressive," Hatten said. Freshmen Jeffrey Stewart of Picayune High and Julius Gray and Kevin Green, both from Prentiss High, are expected to see plenty of action in reserve roles.
In regards to talent, fifth-year Wildcat defensive coordinator William Jones echoes Hatten's sentiments.
"Talent is not an obstacle for us," said Jones, who spent his first year at PRCC under then-head coach Scott Maxfield who is now leading the Henderson State (Ark.) football program. "The main thing defensively is whether our new guys have the mental toughness to put people away. Can we knock off teams when we have them on the ropes? Do we have the mettle in the tough games? Will we have the effort and attention to detail and preparation like our defensive guys of the last two years?
"That remains to be seen, but if our new guys can step up like I know they can in the early part of the season; Pearl River's going to be a team that's mighty hard to beat," he concluded.
Only two full-time starters return to the Wildcat defense which was sixth-best in the NJCAA a year ago. Tackle Frank Harry of Angie, La., and end Ben McGilton of Pearl River Central started all 12 games last season; while linebacker Chris Lowery of Petal saw some starting time.
"Frank and Ben are going to be our anchors," Jones said. "They're hard workers on the practice field and in the classroom and form a solid foundation for the rest of our guys."
McGilton boasted a 3.7 grade-point average as a freshman, while Harry's GPA was a solid 2.8.
The remaining down positions see a heated competition. Out-of-staters Dorian Capers of Buford, S.C.; Brian Colter of Baker, La.; and Rodney Milson of Fitzgerald, Ga.; are gunning for starting spots; while returning players Kevin Oatis of Prentiss and Vince Strickland of Hattiesburg High are also in the mix.
At end, freshmen James Holloway of Hattiesburg High, Chandler Richardson of Poplarville High, Donell Smith of Picayune High, and Kendrick Young of West Jones have been impressive.
Freshman Donte Spires of Tampa, Fla., who signed with South Florida out of high school, is a projected starter at weak linebacker; while sophomores Leverette and George McBeath of Moss Point are battling it out for the strong side starting spot. Sophomore Perry Guinn of Forrest County AHS and freshmen Steve Dauenhauer of Bay High, Anthony Payne of Prentiss High, Chase Richardson of Poplarville High, Richard Roper of Biloxi High (a Mississippi Valley transfer), and David Tate of Madison Central (a Nichols State transfer) will also see plenty of action.
Sophomore corner Shalamar Walker of East Marion is the only experienced player in the secondary and he saw only reserve duty last year.
"We've got plenty of speed and talent back there, but all our guys are unproven," Jones said. "I've got faith that we'll be fine, but it's going to the a learning experience for all our guys in the secondary in the early going of the season."
Walker and freshman Justin Brandon of Pearl River Central are likely starters at the corners, while freshmen Dominic Poole of Poplarville High and Kenny Robinson of Pearl River Central will see plenty of playing time as back ups. The safety spot is up in the air with C.J. Barber of Rock Hill, S.C., and Ole Miss transfer David Bell of Jacksonville, Fla., in a heated competition for the starting nod. Back ups include freshmen Gene Anderson of East Marion, Demoine Goins of Lumberton (a redshirt freshman transfer from Marshall), and Maurice Haynes of Prentiss High.
"All these guys are very, very talented football players," Jones added.
"We're solid back there, but we're very young and very green." Goins, who stands at a towering 6-foot-5, will also see some duty as a wide receiver in red zone situations Jones said.
Freshman Scott Hollery of Picayune High will handle the kicking duties, succeeding All-Region 23 performer Chris St. John of Oak Grove who's now playing soccer at Mississippi College. Back up quarterback Steven Kulikowski, sophomore from St. Stanislaus, will be the Wildcats' punter; while Doug Dubuisson of Gulfport High returns as deep snapper. Hatten says Byrd, McClendon, and Wright will handle the majority of the kickoff and punt returns.
"That (kicking game) is an area that we should be much improved," Hatten said.
A win over Itawamba in Sept. 1's opener will mark the Wildcats' 20th straight victory, tying the mark set by Holden from 1960 until 1962.
"Actually, we've lost only one game in our last 22 and our last defeat (versus Hinds in the 2003 regular season) involved a mistake on a kickoff in the final minutes which probably cost us a national title shot that year," Hatten said. "Another thing we're mighty proud of is that we've lost only one road game in the last three years and that was the very first game I coached here when we lost to Northeast 13-6 on the road at Booneville."
Hatten, a former Wildcat receiver in the mid-1980s, takes his team's preseason No. 1 ranking in stride.
"It's nice to be recognized as one of the top programs in the country," he said. "When I got here we wanted to be one of the best programs in the state and we've achieved that. Now we've got a national title under out belts and when you do that you're naturally going to get a lot of national attention.
"What more can we do? Hinds had a heck of a run in the '90s with four straight state titles (1994-1997) and won a fifth one in 2000. We're on track to match that accomplishment, but Hinds is one of our biggest obstacles to overcome. We've beat them for our back-to-back titles the past two years and you can bet they'll be in the heat of the mix this year."
What does the league look like this year?
"It's hard to say," Hatten said. "Hinds is good year in and year out and I expect (Mississippi) Gulf Coast to be much improved. But we've got to take care of our own business on the practice field and come game time everything will work out. We've got a long way to go before our opener." Hatten's staff of assistants remains intact from last year with offensive line coach Buddy Stephens, a former Wildcat standout, returning for his fifth season; along with defensive assistants John Creech (line), Loray Jordan (line), and Anthony Magee (secondary). Russell Mitchell returns as an offensive assistant, while newcomers are James Reynolds, a former player at The Citadel; and former Wildcat wide receiver Melvin Tart.
In addition, six Wildcat players earned preseason All-American honorable
mention honors in Harry, Lowery, McClendon, McGilton, Sefton, and Sellers.
2005 WILDCAT SCHEDULE
Sept. 1 (TH) Itawamba Fulton 7:00 pm
Sept. 8 (TH) East Mississippi Scooba 7:00 pm
Sept. 15 (TH) Copiah-Lincoln L Poplarville 7:00 pm
Sept. 22 (TH) East Central L Decatur 6:30 pm
Sept. 29 (TH) Hinds L Poplarville 7:00 pm
Oct. 8 (SAT) Jones L Ellisville 7:00 pm
Oct. 15 (SAT) Southwest L Homecoming 3:00 pm
Oct. 20 (TH) Miss. Gulf Coast L Perkinston 7:00 pm
Oct. 27 (TH) Miss. Delta Poplarville 7:00 pm
( l ) DENOTES SOUTH DIVISION GAMES, ( TH ) THURSDAY GAMES, ( SAT )
Pearl River defensive tackle Frank Harry (95), a sophomore from Angie, La.; is one of two full-time defensive starters returning to the defending national and state champion Wildcat squad in 2005. (photo by Mitch Deaver)