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Since taking over the reins of the Northeast football program in 2008, Ricky Smither has led the Tigers to resurgence.
Despite collecting only three wins (one via forfeit) during his first two seasons, the Tigers experienced a breakthrough win against Itawamba Community College 28-21 -- Smither’s first win on the gridiron -- and a 25-10 North Division win over Holmes Community College in 2009 and finally broke through in 2010 posting their first winning season since 2005 at 5-4 and marked the fifth North Division runner-up finish in school history.
Now, the Tigers are set to contend for the North Division crown.
“One of the keys to success this year will be for us to just stay healthy,” explained Smither. “We have some guys that can play the game but if they aren’t on the field then it won’t do us much good.”
“A key for us will be the play of our sophomore quarterback Bryan Steele (6-3, 215; Tupelo) who must stay healthy and play at a high level in order for us to be successful this season,” Smither said.
Northeast returns a talented offensive line with the likes of 2010 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) All-American Honorable Mention Antonio Foster. Foster became Northeast’s first All-American in football since Anthony Norman and Paul Rhodes turned the trick in 1980.
Foster, a 6-4 300-pound Valdosta, Ga. native, helps anchor the offensive line that sees Kyle Davis (6-3, 285; Olive Branch), Chanston Jeter (6-4, 315; Ripley) and Nathan Kendrick (5-10, 275; Amory) all return to a group that helped the Tiger offense average nearly 300 yards per game of total offense in during the 2010 season.
Foster, Davis, Kendrick, and Jeter helped springboard Northeast to the forefront of the rushing category in the Tigers 49-42 win over defending Mississippi Association of Community/Junior Colleges (MACJC) state champion East Mississippi as the Tiger offensive line helped Jaquise Cook (Ripley) rush for 267 yards and four scores against the Lions as Northeast racked up 346 yards on the ground during the week six win. Cook was awarded the NJCAA Player of the Week for his performance marking the first time the Tigers have ever had a player selected for that honor.
“The offensive lineman are ready for the new challenges ahead and we are very excited about the size and athleticism they have,” said offensive line coach Brad Boyette. “We have some sophomores with experience at this level and we also got some talented freshman as well.”
Northeast’s offensive line will look to open holes for sophomore running back Jamarcus Goodloe (5-10, 225; Leighton, Ala.) who was second on the team in scoring in 2010 and racked up 266 yards on 65 carries for the Tigers.
Joining Goodloe in the backfield is Garrett Smith (Starkville) who will be called upon to tote the pigskin alongside Goodloe.
Steele will be pushed by freshman quarterback J.R. Jennings of Calhoun City, who led the Tigers to the Class 2A State Championship Game in 2010 as a high school senior and can play many positions on the offensive side of the ball, along with Tyler Basil (New Albany) and Parks Frazier (Corinth).
Northeast will not rely just on a ground assault to tally victories in 2011. The Tigers return key pieces to the air attack that helped Northeast average nearly 150 yards through the air each game of the 2010 season.
Donte’ Barksdale (5-8, 175) of Southaven returns to lead the Tiger receiving corps. Barksdale hauled in 26 passes for 316 yards and a pair of scores during the 5-4 North Division runner-up season.
Smither is looking for Barksdale to get some help from newcomer Rodney Becham (Vicksburg) at the wide-out spot.
Northeast also returns a special teams weapon in Taylor Earhart (6-0, 170; Olive Branch) who ranked fourth in the MACJC during the 2010 season in scoring as Earhart accounted for 42 of the Tigers 217 points on the year with 18 extra points and eight field goals.
Alabama signee Deion Belue (6-0, 180; Tuscumbia, Ala.) also returns on the special teams for the Tigers as Belue suits up for his second season in the black and gold.
Belue electrified Tiger nation during his freshman campaign and helped lead the Tigers to a win during the 2010 Homecoming game againstCoahoma when the then-Northeast freshman broke through for an 80-yard score against the visiting Tigers.
“Special teams are so important in every league but especially in this league,” said Smither. “That’s why we spend a lot of time on this aspect of the game. We are going to be strong in this area this year, and I expect good things to happen.”
However, Smither knows that while the offense will put points on the board and fans in the stands, and the importance of special teams, it is the experienced Tiger defense that will put rings on the fingers.
“A big key for us this year will be our defense,” Smither said. “We are very excited about our guys that are back and some newcomers on that side of the ball.”
To help that championship come to pass, Northeast will rely heavily on a pair of Anthonys on the defensive side of the ball.
Linebacker Anthony Brown (6-3, 235; Cairo, Ga.) is poised to lead the Tigers again after leading Northeast with 100 tackles during the 2010 season and eight tackles for loss while DT Anthony Payne (6-1, 300; Leroy, Ala.) returns in the trenches for the Tigers after a freshman season that saw Payne register 13 tackles for loss and was an MACJC All-State first team selection.
“These guys are unbelievable,” explains Smither. “They are both hard workers with plenty of talent and we will look for them to be leaders for our team this season along with some other guys as well.”
Next to Brown will be sophomore Ryan Richardson (5-10, 205; Ripley), who tallied 39 tackles, two pass break ups, and two pass pressures in 2010 before sitting out the last few games due to an injury. Eli Canton of Hernando and Nick Thomason of Muscle Shoals, Ala., look to add depth to the Tiger linebacking corp.
In addition to the Anthonys and Richardson, sophomore defensive end Pat Moore (6-3, 245, Southaven) will help Payne anchor the defensive line after a freshman campaign that saw the Southaven-native register 43 tackles and five tackles for loss.
Defensive line coach Travis Macon will direct this group of upper classmen along with some other newcomers who will add some talent and depth to the line.
“We have a transfer -- Jeremiah Booth from Camden County, Ga. -- that will play the nose guard position for us this fall and he should be something to watch,” said Macon. “ Also we have defensive end Maurice Booker (Leighton, Ala.) who is another guy we are going to look for to do some good things for us this year.”
In the defensive backfield, a pair of experienced shutdown corners comes in the shape of Jeremy Spikner (6-0 185; Olive Branch) and Belue.
When not returning kicks, Belue registered almost 20 total tackles during his freshman season while Spikner was second in the MACJC in interceptions with four in addition to 27 solo stops and seven pass breakups.
“We got a veteran group on the field this year led by Belue who had 16 solo tackles and four pass break ups,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Carter. “Last year most teams game planned away from Belue, but we still had Jeremy Spikner at the other corner and he answered the challenge. We look for him to do the same this year.”
“At safety, we have a big hitting sophomore from Baldwyn -- Devin Lindsey (6-2, 190; Baldwyn),” said Carter. “Lindsey is a big guy who got some reps last season but will be called upon to lead the safeties this season along with sophomore Marvell Taylor (5-10, 180; Charleston) who played linebacker in 2010.”
If everything falls into place and the Tigers can stay healthy, look for 2011 to be Smither’s best year as Northeast’s commander-in-chief on the gridiron.