Uncertainty has gripped the minds of college football decision makers around the country trying to navigate through the COVID-19 crisis. But for now, both Northeast Mississippi and Itawamba Community College are facing the challenge head-on.
The Mississippi Association of Community Colleges voted on July 24 to play a shortened six-game division-only slate with the first game set for Oct. 1, followed by the state playoffs. The decision to press on came earlier that month after the National Junior College Athletic Association decided to move football to the spring.
“I applaud our (athletic directors) in the league and of course, our presidents, for being proactive and trying to get a football season in,” said ICC head coach Sean Cannon.
His rival in Booneville agrees.
“I think it was a smart decision to move the season back to October. That was something that I had suggested in our head coaches meeting a few weeks ago,” said Greg Davis, the head coach of NEMCC. “I think that was the smartest decision by moving that because it gives the opportunities to work through this thing and give us the opportunity to get our feet wet and navigate our way around the little details on a daily basis.”
Preparation for the abbreviated 2020 season begins on Monday as both NEMCC and ICC will take the field for their first practice of an unusual six-week leadup to the first game. Northwest Mississippi will also begin work this week.
The six-week period is a blessing to ICC’s Cannon, who is trying to make up lost time from the spring and summer, but it also poses a new challenge that’s he’s never faced.
“Having this six weeks of a preseason, I think that’s going to help us, kind of taking baby steps as coaches to help them learn where to line up and getting them where you want them to go and what to do before you actually get to the physical part of it,” said Cannon, who’s preparing for his seventh season in Fulton. “That’s a long preseason. Usually we have 22 practice opportunities before you play your first game and now we are actually going to practice longer in the preseason than we are play during the season. ...
“Now it’s figuring out, ‘Hey, do I stay out here three hours or do I work an hour and half and get some quality work in and let them go and just get them built up as you go?’ And that’s what I kind of plan to do.”
Davis said that his program has all the protocols in place to help guide his team to the starting line, but he continues to stress to his players the importance of good hygiene and protecting each other.
“One thing I’ll tell you is that I’ve played this game my entire life,” said Davis. “There is a lot of physical risk. A lot of mental draining involved with this. I’m not taking light of what COVID is. It’s a very serious thing. But every year we take risk stepping on to that football field.
“I don’t want this to be misconstrued of what I’m saying. This is for health and safety for all of us, but at the same time, this game is physical. The contact of this game is still going to be there. The injuries are still going to be there. My kids know the safety and risk involved that they deal with every day to play this game.”
One key member in the MACJC North Division is sitting this one out. East Mississippi announced on Tuesday that it will try to play in the spring, leaving both ICC and NEMCC with just five games on the schedule.
Officials are still trying to determine ways to add a sixth game back to their schedules, and for some what would have been a home game.
Meanwhile, both coaches are focused on their teams and who they have returning.
“We have a lot of returning bodies along the offensive and defensive lines,” said Cannon, whose Indians finished last year on a four-game winning streak. “Anytime you have linemen coming back, it’s always going to help you. Skill wise, we have some really good receivers back. We have to replace our quarterback but that’s the drawback of our league is that you don’t get them very long and they move on. But I like where we are, on paper anyways, and I feel like we can continue off of how we finished last year.”
NEMCC finished 3-6 a season ago, but heading into his ninth year at the helm of the Tigers Davis feels like this team can take big strides, especially in the trenches.
“What I know right now, we should have an offensive line that is sophomore heavy,” said Davis. “I believe we have eight sophomores up there and our entire backfield is back as well. We do return three wideouts and we have different people pulling the trigger at quarterback.
“I can tell you that offensively, we have to get some timing down as far as throwing and those type of things. But experience-wise along the offensive line and inside the box I think we will be much improved from where we were a year ago.”