Credit fifth-year head coach Tim Hatten. In his four years at the helm of Wildcat football, the former PRCC wide receiver's accomplishments on the gridiron have been unprecedented. He boasts a 37-5 record since his arrival in 2002 — the best debut ever for any Wildcat coach, including the legendary Dobie Holden — and his 30-2 mark over the last three seasons includes a NJCAA national title in 2004.
Will Pearl River live up to all the hoopla this year?
"When you accomplish what we've accomplished over the last four years, you expect the recognition. And we're very proud of what we've done," Hatten said. "Sure, there's a bull's eye on our backs, but we use that as a motivational tool. We've got the talent to go all the way and it's our jobs as coaches to keep things heading in the right direction and get our guys ready to play every week.
"In this league, anybody can beat anybody on a given day."
All told, 13 starters return from last year's 8-1 team that won a record 18th state championship, but many first-year players will be filling key vacancies.
Hatten knew he would be hard pressed to replace quarterback Jimmy Oliver, a two-year starter who earned NJCAA All-American and "Offensive Player of the Year" honors in both seasons he suited up for the Wildcats, not to mention leading the state and nation in passing and individual total offense. But redshirt freshman Mike Greco, a North Carolina State transfer, is up for the task.
"Mike's going to be our starter, but he's a completely different kind of player compared to Jimmy," Hatten said. "He has great speed. But, there's nobody as elusive as Jimmy Oliver. But I feel great about Mike going in and he has progressed as fast as anybody we've had since I've been here.
"He picks things up very fast and I'm extremely pleased. This is a new (spread) offense for him, but he's learning it at a tremendous pace."
Greco, who stands 6-foot-3 compared to Oliver's 6-foot frame, is clocked at a sub-4.3-second 40-yard dash and is the fastest player on the team.
Greco will have a talented receiving corps, as sophomores Demetrius Byrd of Miami, Fla., a preseason All-American; Larry Freeman of Fort Meade, Fla., and J.J. Smith of Forrest County AHS return to their starting spots; while redshirt freshman Ricky Smith of Oak Grove will also figure prominently in the mix along with South Florida transfer Carlton Hill, who will also double as a defensive back.
"It's a tremendous asset to have a veteran group of receivers," Hatten said. "Last year, this same group went through a baptism of fire in the early-going, but this year is a different story. Their experience will prove to be a huge boost for Greco."
Sophomore running back Seth Hayden of Pearl River Central and freshman Bubba Kirksey of Hattiesburg High figure prominently in Hatten's offensive plans.
"Our running game will be a a big part in what we do this year. Hayden proved he can perform at this level last year and Kirksey is as good as we expected him to be," Hatten said. "Throw in Greco's arm and speed and we've got the makings of an excellent offensive team on the ground and the air."
The up front guys will be anchored by sophomore preseason All-American Ken Evans of Philadelphia, complimented by Julius Gray of Prentiss, Jeffery Stewart of Picayune High, and Clint Whitley of Oak Grove. All four were starters in '05. Freshman Nate Jenkins of Forrest County AHS and T.J. Jackson of Meridian should see starting duty.
"We've got the talent to potentially have the best offense we've had since I got here," Hatten said. "There's a lot of variables floating around, but if we play up to our talent level, there's no question about it."
Defensively, the prognosis is equally bright.
Sixth-year defensive coordinator Williams Jones says sophomore preseason All-American defensive back Gene Anderson of East Marion is the only guaranteed starter, but singled the likes of sophomores Justin Brandon of Pearl River Central and Hill, along with freshmen Brandon Burns of Birmingham, Ala., Terrance Handy of Jackson, Maurice Haynes of Prentiss, Devin McNair of Petal, and Chris Reed and Josh Wiley, both out of Hattiesburg High.
Said Hatten, "They (DBs) improve day after day. It's really unbelievable. They make plays left and right and when they learn to play together, they're going to be an outstanding group."
The secondary has a pretty good teacher in former Wildcat and NFL two-time pro bowler Larry Whigham, the newest member of Hatten's staff. Whigham, who was inducted into the PRCC Sports Hall of Fame in 2000, played the 1990 and 1991 seasons at The River before signing with Northeast Louisiana where his talents saw him drafted into the NFL where he played nine seasons — seven with the New England Patriots before retiring after two years with the Chicago Bears in 2002.
"Larry's just a great guy to have around," Hatten said. "Not only does he bring NFL experience to the table, but he's a former Juco guy. Larry's been here, done that...and he's a hands-on kind of coach. He's doing a tremendous job."
Jones boasts a stockpile of quality linebackers. Preseason All-American Donte Spires of Tampa, Fla., Keon Wilson of Jacksonville, Fla., and Richard Rope of Biloxi High headline the crew; while University of Miami transfer Willie Williams (a late arrival to camp) will also figure prominently into the starting line up.
"They're all progressing well," Jones said. "We're talking about big-time athletes that are solid at their position."
Others include sophomores Steven Dauenhauer of Bay High and Jackson State transfer Stephen Hill, along with freshmen Brett Acker of Picayune High, Darius Hart of Poplarville High, Jamie Hill of Meridian, Al Hunt of Mize, Anthony Payne and Rodriguez Rankin, both of Prentiss; and D.J. Sullivan of Lumberton.
"We're really, really good at linebacker," Hatten said, "and our secondary could prove to be the best freshman class yet."
On the defensive front, sophomore preseason All-American Brian Keith Coulter of Baton Rouge, La., anchors an impressive group; which includes Alex Ford of Presbyterian Christian, Malcomb Keyes of Hattiesburg High, twin brothers Chandler and Chase Richardson of Poplarville High (end and tackle, respectively), Jacob Whitehead of Pearl River Central, Aaron Williams of Ridgeland, and Kendrick Young of West Jones.
Special teams should be solid with the arrival of left-footed punter Phillip Sullivan of Meridian and placekicker Brad Bingham of Moss Point, both freshmen. Sullivan averaged over 40 yards a boot last year, but Hatten is most impressed with the height and hang time of his kicks.
"Phillip puts it up there where you can really get excellent coverage," he said. "Brad is a top-notch kicker...he's rock solid from 45 yards and kicked a 57-yarder in high school."
Freshman Josh Pruitt of DeSoto Central is the long snapper, while freshman Desmond Ratliff of Canton and J.J. Smith should handle the punt returns. Byrd, Hayden, and Kirksey will handle kickoff returns.
"Above all, I've been most impressed with the discipline of our guys," Hatten said. "This is the lowest maintenance group I've ever had as far as conduct is concerned. They're always on time for meetings, they're in the bed at bed check, they go to class...I couldn't be more pleased."
Besides Jones and Whigham, former Wildcat standout Buddy Stephens returns for a sixth year as co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach; while John Creech is back for a fifth year with the defensive line. Johnny Tart enters his second season as running backs coach, while his little brother, Melvin, returns for a second year as a graduate assistant with wide receivers. Both for former Wildcat players. Russell Mitchell enters his fourth year as quarterbacks coach.
"Our assistant coaches always do a great job," Hatten said. "Most of them have been together going on the fifth straight year and they understand how to get things done as a staff."
Three other MACJC teams are in this year's preseason Top 25 poll, including No. 7 Mississippi Gulf Coast, No. 17 Northeast Mississippi, and No. 25 Hinds.
Pearl River kicks off its 2006 season Thursday, Aug. 31, against non-division rival Mississippi Delta on the road in Moorhead.