Meridian Star

December 18, 2013

TSOUKALAS: JUCO players are worth the risk

Tony Tsoukalas
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Wednesday was the mid-year or Junior College Signing Day, a special day in Mississippi due to our storied success in JUCO football. Locally, East Mississippi Community College had 11 players signed by four-year schools, six of which will be playing for schools in BCS conferences.

    The Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges has been a breeding ground for Division I talent throughout the years. More importantly, the league has allowed plenty of athletes a second chance they would not be able to find anywhere else.

    A most recent example is EMCC defensive lineman D.J. Pettway, who was kicked off the team at the University of Alabama after he was charged with second degree robbery in February.

    While EMCC gave Pettway another chance at football, Scooba served as a safe haven to keep the four-star defender out of trouble. Pettway made noise on the field, finishing fifth in the nation with 11.5 sacks, while remaining quiet off of it. Wednesday, he signed back with Alabama where he will join fellow EMCC teammate Jarran Reed next season.

    Alabama head coach Nick Saban is no stranger to taking chances on JUCO players. It's hard to imagine where the Crimson Tide would have been in recent years without the likes of Terrance Cody (Mississippi Gulf Coast), DeQuan Menzie (Copiah-Lincoln) and Jesse Williams (Western Arizona).

    Saban isn't alone either. How bout down the road at Auburn? The Tigers are going to their second BCS National Championship game in four years — both times with JUCO quarterbacks behind center.

    The rewards are clear — JUCO players come into four-year programs highly motivated with college experience already under their belts. Coaches usually look to JUCO players to fill immediate holes that cannot be filled by incoming freshman.

    However, the risks can be just as glaring. Generally, players enroll into junior colleges for one of three reasons — grades,  lack of ability or due to some sort of disciplinary action such as Pettway's. The fear in taking these type of players is that they will revert back to whatever action put them at the JUCO level to start with once they are move up to the next level.

    College coaches also don't want to stock up on too many junior college players due to their typically short tenure at the four-year level. A JUCO player often opts to leave for the NFL if he is successful in his first season with a four-year school, especially if he plays for a high-profile program. Most of the time, a junior college player will join a four-year university with three years to play out two years of eligibility. So, even if an athlete doesn't bolt his first year, his time is guaranteed to be short-lived. This makes it nearly impossible to build a team around JUCO players because of the lack of stability they offer.

    But as more and more success stories come out, college coaches will continue to dip into the JUCO realms for talent. This year, Auburn continued its recent string of JUCO players by adding four to its 2014 class — a list including the nation's No. 1 rated junior college player, Mississippi Gulf Coast receiver D'haquille Williams.

    Ole Miss looks like it has joined the JUCO bandwagon as well, signing EMCC linebacker Christian Russell, Northeast Mississippi athlete Jeremy Liggins and College of DuPage offensive tackle Fahn Cooper. The Rebels have had success at the JUCO level lately, particularly at quarterback with Bo Wallace, who came to Ole Miss after leading EMCC to its first national championship in 2011.

    Having spent this past season covering EMCC, I have seen what a difference junior college football can make on a young player. MACJC athletes often leave their respected junior colleges with Division I offers, but they also leave with a new sense of purpose in life.

    The couple of times I had the opportunity to interview Pettway after games, I didn't see an  ex-criminal. I saw a shy, humble young man hungry for a second chance at his dream — and at life for that matter.

    What Pettway does in his second stint at Alabama will ultimately be up to him. Is he a risk? Sure.

    But, it's a risk college coaches should and most likely will continue to take moving forward.