Kemper County coach Chris Jones gives his quarterback Eric Clark a championship hug.

 

STARKVILLE — The year before football coach Chris Jones arrived at Kemper County High School in 2013, the Wildcats finished 1-10. And nobody really cared that much. After all, it was time for hoops.

Kemper had long been a basketball school.

Rick Cleveland

Jones, a former star Jackson State wide receiver who got a couple cups of coffee in the NFL, knew he wasn’t going to change the De Kalb school into a football factory. The goal was to become competitive. He saw some athletes who could help in that regard, but they were playing basketball, not football.

“The first thing I had to do was some recruiting in the gym, our gym,” Jones said.

Mission accomplished. Five football starters, who helped Kemper win the State Class 3A basketball title last winter, Saturday helped the Wildcats win the school’s first-ever state football championship. The ‘Cats knocked off perennial North State powerhouse Charleston 12-8 on a raw, rainy day at Scott Field. The victory put an exclamation point at the end of an amazing football turn-around. To be sure, Kemper County football has become better than competitive.

Consider:

• After losing to Class 6A Columbus 26-12 in their opener, the Wildcats reeled off 15 straight victories, averaging 37 points per game.

• Over four seasons at Kemper, Jones now has a 46-12 record – none too shabby for a school that was 1-10 before he came.

• Running a bastardized version of Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense, the Wildcats threw for 237 yards a game and ran for 185.

Several times Saturday, Kemper had receivers running so open you’d have sworn the Wildcat receivers must have had body odor or bad breath. Seemed nobody wanted to be anywhere around them. Kemper quarterback Eric Clark completed only nine passes but those nine went for 251 yards and two touchdowns.

Asked about his offense, Jones said much of it comes from the system Mumme and Mike Leach designed but added, “Some of it is from my time at Jackson State. Some of it is from my time in the NFL. And some of it is just from watching TV.

“But here’s the thing. What you saw today wasn’t about me or my system. I had playmakers who were making plays. This was about them.”

DJ Clayton, a speedy wide receiver who doubles as a basketball standout, caught five of those passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns. That’s 46 yards a catch if you’re keeping score.

“Honestly, I don’t know how they got so open,” Charleston coach Scott Martin said. “They do a good job. Chris does a great job.”

It wasn’t all pitch and catch for the Wildcats. They were sturdy and then some on defense, limiting a Charleston team that averaged 34 points per game to just the one score. Quite obviously, the Wildcats spend much time in the weight room, as well as the basketball gym.

So now Chris Jones will celebrate with a haircut. He promised his players before the season that he would grow his normally close-cropped hair until they won the state championship.

“I can’t wait,” Jones said. “I am calling my barber and getting it done tomorrow. I can’t wait to get this stuff thinned out.”

Said Martin, the balding Charleston coach, with a wry smile: “Tell Chris I could have done that for him. I’ve already pulled all mine out.”

Charleston coach Scott Martin consoles his players after a hard-fought state championship defeat.

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Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.


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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.