PERKINSTON — Jack Wright enters his second season in charge at Mississippi Gulf Coast wearing the same attitude from the moment he walked onto campus in December 2017.
"We have high expectations. That's what we have every year, high expectations for football here at Mississippi Gulf Coast," he said. "We have some talent. We have a really good group of kids. It's just going to be a process of us as coaches to get the new players to mesh with the guys who are coming back and come together and play as one."
Gulf Coast kicks off the season Aug. 29 at Mississippi Delta.
The Bulldogs come into the 2019 season with higher expectations coming off a 7-2 season that saw them narrowly miss the playoffs. Wright says he wouldn't want to coach anywhere else.
The offense returns the nation's leading passer in Chance Lovertich (So., Jackson Prep/Brandon). He ranked first with a 184.1 passing efficiency rating and set Gulf Coast records in completion percentage (70.8) and touchdown passes in a game (6).
"We expect him to lead the offense and handle a lot of the communication," Wright said. "We've put a little more on his plate as far as moving parts and being able to get the ball to the right person at the right time against certain defensive looks we're going to get."
His receiving corps will include returning wide receivers Marquise Bridges (So., Petal/Brookhaven) and Perry Keyes (So., Taylorsville/Taylorsville). Wright says they've elevated their games with more repetition in the spring and fall camps.
If the passing game finds more explosive plays, that should balance the offense with three experienced running backs returning. Omni Wells (So., Moss Point/Moss Point), Austin Bolton (So., Poplarville/Poplarville) and Shaun Anderson (So., Picayune/Picayune) combined for 11 touchdowns and nearly 850 yards rushing last year while averaging 5.5 yards per run.
The usual big and powerful offensive line is centered by Cole Freeman (So., West Lauderdale/Collinsville). His four running mates from last year are all playing FBS football this year.
"We're counting a lot on Cole, who's the only starter coming back from a talented group," Wright said. "We seem to have restocked with our size and strength. A lot of those guys haven't played a lot. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves as a coaching staff to bring that group along as quickly as possible. A lot of our success will hinge on how quickly we can get them and the rest of the offense to execute."
There will be a lot of new faces on the defensive side of the ball, including a familiar face in a new coaching position. Dr. Brett Shufelt was elevated to defensive coordinator. He was linebackers coach of a squad that was among the stingiest in the nation in scoring (15.7, fifth), passing yards per game (116.8, second) and touchdown passes allowed (6).
"There will be a lot of similarities," Wright said. "A lot of the things that worked last year, we're going to carry over. Anytime you have a new coordinator, it's like having a new painter behind the brush. There's going to be different strokes in different places. There's going to be a different personality."
The Bulldogs defense will be aggressive, and it will be active. Wright said there aren't guys who are just space holders. They'll get off blocks and pursue.
The defensive line isn't the most physically imposing group, but they'll be tough to block. Shelvin Hudson (So., Jefferson County/Fayette), Jamie Sheriff (So., Terry/Terry), Tylan Jones (So., Lake Cormorant/Walls), Tijuane Bolton (So., Perry Central/New Augusta), Tre Lawson (So., North Augusta/North Augusta S.C.) and Demonde Harris (So., Edna Karr/New Orleans La.) bring a good blend of length and athleticism. Ronell Burbank (So., Edna Karr /New Orleans La.) transferred in from McNeese State, and Donald Hall (So., DeSoto Central/Olive Branch) arrived from Prairie View to provide even more experience.
"We're starting over completely at linebacker," Wright said. "We lost some really good players. We signed four, and we feel like we signed really well. They've all had really good camps, but we won't know how good they are until we play somebody else."
There are a lot of interchangeable parts in the defensive backfield, led by Tim Steward (So., Hazlehurst/Hazelhurst) and Jackie Matthews (So., Pinson Valley/Pinson Ala.). They have players who can play safety or corner, and even mix things up in the box.
Wright's high expectations for his team are tempered by the strength of the opposition. The rugged MACJC is the hardest proving ground in the country, and Gulf Coast's division is the toughest in the state.
"The South will be really competitive, even more so than last year," he said. "Jones has a lot of people back. Co-Lin has a bunch of players in the ESPN Top 300, so they're even more talented than they have been. Pearl River is always gonna be a challenge. East Central is extremely well-coached and always tough to beat. I've heard a lot of great things about Hinds this year, too.
"The usual suspects are gonna be good. That's part of the MACJC South. You have to come to work. That's gonna be 2019, 2029. It'll be 2039. It'll always be the same."
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