POPLARVILLE - The No. 1-ranked Pearl River Wildcats are gunning for a fifth-straight MACJC state football championship in 2007 and to talk with sixth-year head coach Tim Hatten, such an accomplishment could possibly become a reality.
The Wildcats won an unprecedented 19th state title a year ago - their fourth in a row - then played for the NJCAA national crown in early December in the Pilgrim's Pride Bowl in Mt. Pleasant, Tex., only to fall to Blinn (Tex.) 19-6 to hand the Buccaneers the big prize for '06.
Not many folks would be surprised if PRCC wound up returning to the NJCAA title bout, but Hatten, who boasts an amazing 47-7 record over the past five seasons, says such an opportunity is way down the road.
"That's something you shoot for every year, but you've got to take care of business during the regular season and the post-season to even get the chance," said Hatten, who led the Wildcats to a national crown in 2004 with a perfect 12-0 mark. "We were fortunate to get there (national title game) last year, but we lucked out and the cards fell our way.
"National recognition is nice and we’re honored by the ranking, but it immediately puts a big target on your back...that’s just the way it is."
This marks the third-straight season that the Wildcats have entered the year with a No. 1 preseason ranking. Last year, PRCC remained at the top of the national poll for three straight weeks before upstart Copiah-Lincoln, which went on to claim the MACJC South Division crown, stymied the Wildcats with a 31-21 upset victory in Wesson.
Pearl River abruptly dropped to ninth in the balloting the following week, then ran the table from there on out to climb back to the No. 2 spot after avenging its Co-Lin setback with a last-minute come-from-behind 21-20 victory over the Wolves in the state championship game played in Wesson and thus grabbing a national title berth.
An explosive, pass-oriented offense has been Hatten’s forte' since he arrived on campus in the summer of 2002, but this go around he's quick to tout the Wildcat defense.
"The (defensive) group we've got this year could be very, very special," he said. "In terms of ability, they're unmatched. We were great on that side of the ball back in '04, but we didn’t have the depth on that squad that we've got this year. We're three deep with quality players are some spots."
Seventh-year defensive coordinator William Jones boasts a trio of Division I-caliber linebackers in sophomore middle man Keon Wilson of Jacksonville, Fla., and outside guys Hendrick Leverette of Oak Grove and Tim Rawlinson of Prattville, Ala. Leverette redshirted at Auburn last season before transferring to Poplarville, while Rawlinson is a Florida State placement who redshirted with the Wildcats in '07.
"We're going to be lights out on the defensive side," Jones said. "We got lots of guys back with championship experience, plus we've recruited the best in-district class since I’ve been here with several key out-of-district players to boot."
Wilson has already verbally committed to the Miami Hurricanes, while sophomore backers Brent Acker of Picayune High, a part time starter a year ago, and Jamie Hill of Meridian will see plenty of playing time, along with redshirt freshman Darius Hart of Poplarville High and true freshman Travis Peyton of Oak Grove.
Sophomore defensive linemen Alex Ford of Presbyterian Christian, Malcomb Keys of Hattiesburg High, Aaron (Eight Ball) Williams of Ridgeland, Thomas Robinson of Oak Grove, and Anthony Shaw of Forrest County AHS return, along with sophomore DBs Marvis Burkett of Pearl River Central, Brandon Burns of Columbiana, Ala., Terrence Handy of Jackson Provine, and Josh Wiley of Hattiesburg High.
Redshirt freshman Devin McNair of Petal is also heavily figured into the mix, as well as freshmen Troy Hulbert of Ridgeland and Frank Newsome of Petal. Jones also had accolades for redshirt defensive end Craig Marshall of Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
On the offensive side, redshirt freshman Lance Cuevas is the frontrunner at quarterback going in. Cuevas prepped at St. Stanislaus before transferring to Fairhope, Ala., for his senior year after Hurricane Katrina KO'ed the Rock-A-Chaws season in 2005.
"Lance knows what he's doing," Hatten said. "He's not as fleet footed as some of the guys we've had in the past, but has a good, solid arm, uses his brain, and knows this (spread) offense like the back of his hand. You really don’t know how impressive he really is unless you know what he’s suppose to be doing. Lance nails his reads practically every play."
Cuevas is getting plenty of competition from true freshmen Kirk Lance of Oak Grove and Pat Oliver of East Marion, while speedster wide receiver Theo Wilson, a sophomore transfer who quarterbacked division rival Southwest Mississippi last year, has also been taking snaps and provides even more depth at the position.
"Theo's a pretty special player," Hatten said. "He can play quarterback, but we really can best use his speed, athleticism, and play making ability at wide receiver."
Only two receivers return from '06 in sophs Ray Chisolm of North Forrest and Chris Reed of Hattiesburg High, but four standout transfers put a gleam in Hatten's eyes in Drew Ezell of Oak Grove, Roger Frazier of Lakeland, Fla., O.J. Murdock of Tampa, Fla., and Wilson, who also hails from Tampa.
Ezell, who is still classified as a freshman, spent last year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.; while Frazier played at Hutchinson CC (Kan.) in 2005. Murdock played for Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks last season.
"There's plenty of talented depth at receiver," Hatten said. "Murdock has the ability to become one of the best receivers to ever play here."
Running back Bubba Kirksey of Hattiesburg High returns to the backfield for his sophomore year, while redshirt freshman Georgio Hall of Prentiss will see plenty of duty as his back up. The duo will be following the blocks of returning down guys T.J. Harper of Meridian, Nate Jenkins of Forrest County AHS, Teddy Morris of Bay High, and Collin Miller of Hancock County, while redshirt freshmen Jacob Karl of Picayune High and Charvo Lampton of Columbia High are also in the running for starting berths. True freshman James Seifker of West Lauderdale also figures strongly in the mix.
The kicking game is a definite strong point, headlined by preseason All-American place kicker Brad Bingham of Moss Point. Phillip Sullivan of Meridian returns as punter, along with deep snapper Josh Pruett of DeSoto Central. Freshmen punter-kicker Jonathan Rayner of Petal will kickoff duty, while Jake Pruett, Josh's brother, will be on hand as the team's back up punter.
"Our special teams should be really, really solid," Hatten explained. "Brad, Phillip, and Josh showed what they can do last year and our new guys also have the goods to contribute."
The Wildcat coaching staff remains virtually intact from a year ago. The newest face is wide receivers coach Leroy Frederick, a former Hutchinson CC assistant; while Buddy Stephens returns for his seventh year with the offensive line and fifth as co-offensive coordinator with Hatten. Entering their fifth seasons with the Wildcats are defensive line and strength coach John Creech and quarterbacks coach Russell Mitchell, while Larry Whigham, a PRCC football hall of famer and former NFL defensive back, eyes his second year as defensive backs and special teams coach. Former Wildcat Melvin Tart returns for his third year as a receivers' graduate assistant. Tart's older brother, Johnny, coached running backs for the past two seasons before leaving for Belhaven College this fall.
PRCC kicks off its season Thursday, August 30, when MACJC non-division rival Mississippi Delta visits Dobie Holden Stadium for a 7 p.m. game.