(Photo by Tim Jaynes, Staff)
SIKESTON - From 1994-2001, the Jackson Indians were considered Southeast Missouri's premier football program.
One year after the school's greatest season ever, the Indians fell on hard times last season with a 2-8 record, Jackson's worst mark since 1969.
With just five starters returning, not much is expected out of the 2003 Indians either.
Not even Jackson head coach Carl Gross is very optimistic about the season.
"We beat two football teams last year, Graves County and Poplar Bluff," said Gross in early August. "Graves County dropped us and Poplar Bluff was very young. So we're still trying to figure out what football game we can win."
The Sikeston Bulldogs will find out first hand what the Indians are made of tomorrow night at 7:30 at SPS Stadium when the two hook up for the first game of the season.
But head coach Charlie Vickery, perhaps remembering his team's 21-14 goal-line squeaker against Jackson last season, isn't ready to write off the Indians just yet.
"Jackson is always going to be one of the top teams in the area," said Vickery. "They are always extremely well coached. They do things the right way and they're always a physical team. Anytime you go in against a team like Jackson, if you're not ready to play physical football, you could be in for a long night."
One reason Gross is skeptical is the fact that he had to replace his entire offensive line.
"The thing that scares me more than anything else is all five of our offensive linemen from last year graduated," he said. "We're not very big and I'll tell you, we just really don't match up with (Sikeston) on the line of scrimmage.
"Anytime you start a young line, it makes you nervous. It showed up in our jamboree the other night. We couldn't move the ball against tall grass. That kind of makes me nervous going against Sikeston."
The Bulldogs were in the same boat last year with an entirely new offensive line, but they fared well against the bigger, more experienced Jackson front.
Gross is also concerned about his new line's lack of size.
"We're going to be little bitty, and there's nothing we can do about it," Gross told the Southeast Missourian last week. Nevertheless, the Indians will still average 218 across the line. And that's not including a pair of 225-pound tight ends.
Plus all but one of the linemen are over 6-foot.
"When (Gross) says small, that's maybe small compared to what Jackson has put out in the past," said Vickery. "They're smaller, but they're not small."
The Bulldogs aren't as big as they've been in the past either, but they still have good size up front, averaging 224 pounds, most of which returns from last year.
"Last year I thought we were really going to be good on the line of scrimmage," said Gross. "They ended up commencing to whoop us. Sikeston did a really good job against us last year and pretty much wore us out."
Big things are predicted of the Bulldogs this season, who, in addition to solid line play, return many key skill players from last year's 7-2 team.
But one question mark will be at the all-important quarterback position, where senior Stephen Miller will be making his first start.
"I don't think he's a concern with our offense, it's just a matter of getting him battle-tested," said Vickery. "I have all the confidence in the world that he can get the job done."
Miller looked sharp in the jamboree scrimmage last week, displaying a soft touch on short and long passes.
"We'd like to put pressure on him, but again they've got a pretty experienced offensive line coming back," said Gross. "I had a chance to see him in the jamboree the other night, and boy, the kid threw the football well. He sure looked awful athletic and he put the ball on the money. It doesn't look like they've dropped off a whole lot."
Scotty Keenan returns as the Bulldogs' top receiver after catching 11 passes for 230 yards last year with two scores.
Also returning for the Bulldogs is all-state linebacker Jacob Priday, who will start at fullback tomorrow night as well.
"I know that No. 36, Priday, made about 150 tackles against us last year," said Gross. "The thing that really concerns me is now they're turning around and handing the football to him. Jacob Priday is obviously something that we've got to be concerned with."
While they may be thin on the line, the Indians' cupboard isn't bare. Starting quarterback Tyler Profilet returns after throwing for 760 yards last season.
"I've been reading where they're having quarterback problems, but I've seen him play -- he's a quality quarterback," said Vickery of Profilet. "He can throw it well and I expect them to come out and maybe even test us a little bit."
Two of Profilet's top targets will be Tyler McNeely, a 6-3, 225-pound tight end, who caught 11 passes for 115 yards last season, and Brad Crader, a 6-2, 230-pound tight end, who caught three passes for 61 yards last year.
Also returning is junior running back Jason Meystedt, who rushed for 458 yards with six touchdowns while filling in for the injured Stuart McIntosh.
In just two quarters of action last year against the Bulldogs, Meystedt finished with 135 yards on 18 carries with a score.
"Meystedt came in last year and ran the ball extremely well against us," said Vickery. "He's got good speed and good vision. We're just going to have to play solid defense."
Adding even more tension to the first game of the year is the fact that it is a SEMO Conference matchup, making a loss devastating for either team.
"The good thing about playing Sikeston, you're playing a well-coached football team," said Gross. "If you've got any flaws you're going to find out real quick."