When less than a dozen players showed up for spring workouts, senior DB/QB Jaquan Williams went into the hallways of Mitchell County High School and started recruiting. Six months later, Williams helped fill the roster and has emerged as one of the team’s leaders. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

When less than a dozen players showed up for spring workouts, senior DB/QB Jaquan Williams went into the hallways of Mitchell County High School and started recruiting. Six months later, Williams helped fill the roster and has emerged as one of the team’s leaders. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Counting down to kickoff

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s in-depth look at Mitchell county and BACONTON CHARTER marks the 10th and 11th of 26 prep football season previews that will appear in the sports section during the next two weeks as we count down to Kickoff 2012. On Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at SOUTHLAND and AMERICUS-SUMTER. Enjoy!

CAMILLA — There’s that chip, the one the kids from Mitchell County are carrying around.

They kick it, pass it, run with it and tackle it.

It’s with them every day of practice, and it will be there when the Eagles open football season Aug. 31 against state power Clinch County, the very team that knocked Mitchell out of the playoffs last year.

But this won’t be the same Mitchell team — not at all.

That team has left town. A whopping 15 seniors graduated, and even the coach left for another job. By the time spring practice was supposed to begin, there was almost no one left to play at Mitchell.

“We probably had about 10 or 12 guys in the spring,’’ said Bryan Ellis, a senior who will start on both sides of the line.

That’s when people in Camilla started talking.

“We heard it from everybody, people in the community,’’ said Jacorey Belvin, a senior fullback and linebacker. “Friends at school, relatives, everybody was saying how we were not going to be any good this year.’’

Enter Larry Cornelius, a new coach with a lot of optimism and not many players.

But kids like Ellis and Belvin — and especially Jaquan Williams — went to work.

“Jaquan went out and started recruiting kids to play on the team,’’ said assistant coach Derex Woumnm, who couldn’t believe the effect Williams and the others had. “They made sure this team had players. They went out and recruited kids to pay football. It was really something the way they listened to Jaquan.’’

Cornelius was busy, too, trying to bring in kids to a program that was left with little hope and a lot of doubt.

Not anymore.

“We lost a lot of seniors, so we had to go to school and get guys to help the team,’’ said Williams, one of the top defensive backs in the area who is also battling for the quarterback job. “Everybody has been talking about how we’re not going to be any good and they are down on us. We needed players, and we went and got them.

“Yeah, we’ve got a chip on our shoulders. They are saying we won’t be able to do anything. It made me mad. But we’re just going to prove them wrong. I know we can be as good as we were last year and do even better.’’

Mitchell is coming off two years of prosperity. The Eagles moved down from Class AA to Class A two years ago and took off. They won the Region 1-A title two years ago and finished second to state power Seminole County last year. But neither team got past the first round of the playoffs.

If Mitchell’s “Chip Kids” can reach the playoffs and get past the first round, they will shock Camilla.

“We’ve got a good coach, and we’re getting better day by day,’’ Williams said. “And we’ve got a lot of new players, a lot of good players — players people don’t know about. We’re out to prove a point.’’

Cornelius has somehow filled the roster, which had more than 45 players when practice started in August, and he believes once his kids learn the new offense that Mitchell will be tough to beat.

The kids believe it, too.

“We’ve got a new coach and a new offense and new players,’’ Belvin said. “But this just gives us room for these new players to come in here and get a chance to show what they can do. I think we will be better this year. We’ve got intensity in practice — way more intensity in practice than we have ever had. We just need to take that intensity into the games.’’

Ellis said there’s no doubt this year’s team will be better than last year’s group that went 7-4.

“I know we will be better,’’ he said. “This is our last year and (us seniors) know we needed to get the numbers, and we went out and got them, and this team has great chemistry.’’

Cornelius loves the Wing-T, and Mitchell, which has been playing out of the spread the past few seasons, will have to adjust — especially on the offensive line, where the blocking can get tricky.

But Cornelius believes he has the players to make it work.

“I’m impressed (with the way the kids came out for the team),’’ he said. “These kids have something to prove.’’

Ellis is the only returning offensive lineman, but Keon Jenkins, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound junior who played some last year, could find a home at guard, where he has more size than most at that position but the quickness to pull (no pun intended) it off.

“He’s got the best feet of our linemen,’’ Cornelius said. “That’s a big body coming around the edge.’’

Belvin (5-11, 185) started on the OL last year, but will probably move to fullback this season. Tremel Emanuel is also battling for the fullback spot, so the Eagles have some options. Ryshari Burley and Casey Wood are both about 240 pounds and are battling for the left tackle spot. Quentin Sanders, a 5-11, 250-pound freshman, will be at the other guard, and Tyreek Brown, a 5-6, 175-pound sophomore, will be at center.

“Our line has to improve as we go, but we already made a giant leap from the first week to the second week,’’ Cornelius said. “It was night and day from the first practice. That’s our goal, to get better every day. We always want to be improving.’’

Williams and sophomore Troy Chester are in a battle for the quarterback spot. Cornelius knows his QB has to be tough and smart because the Eagles will run a lot of option, and that could give Williams an edge because he’s a senior — and because he’s a natural leader. But Cornelius likes Chester, too.

“If Troy isn’t our quarterback now he will be the quarterback in the future,’’ Cornelius said.

Joquil Chester will be at one receiver spot, and Joshua King will be at tight end. Mitchell will still throw the ball but not as much as in years past. The Eagles may not have a ton of experience, but Cornelius believes he has players who can win.

“We’ve got speed,’’ he said. “And I’ve been impressed with the talent we have here. We’ve got some running backs.’’

Kavoris Pollard, a 5-9, 180-pound senior, will get his chance to show off his 4.43 speed as the go-to running back. Mitchell also has Anfreenee Williams, a 5-9, 180-pound junior, to run the ball along with Anthony Murray, who was a receiver last year. Cornelius said Murray can also be used as a receiver, as well as a running back this year.

“We’ve got the running backs,’’ Cornelius said. “When we get our line right, it will be very difficult to defend the option. I follow the Lou Holtz approach. Holtz always said he doesn’t necessarily always play the best athlete, but the player who fits best in the system.’’

Cornelius said he was two-deep along his defensive line that includes Anfreenee Williams and Brian Peoples at the ends and Ellis at nose guard.

Mitchell has plenty of speed in the secondary with Pollard and Chester battling for one cornerback spot and Williams returning at strong safety and Murray at free safety. Belvin heads up the linebackers that include Emanuel and Pollard.

“We’ve got lots of battles for positions,’’ Cornelius said. “That’s a good thing. In June the question was, ‘Do we have five guys for the offensive line?’ Now we have seven battling for five spots.

“I looked at the roster last year, and they had 35 players. We’ve got more than 45, and I’m having to order more equipment. I’m happy where we’re at. It’s a testament to the kids who have been here all season and recruiting the other guys. They all have that chip on their shoulder, and they’re out to prove something.’’

Mitchell County's 2012 season outlook

MASCOT: Eagles.

HEAD COACH: Larry Cornelius (first season as head coach).

2011 RECORD: 7-4.

ASSISTANT COACHES: Kerry English (defensive coordinator/DBs/WRs); Jermaine King (special teams/OL/LBs); Steven Hardy (DL/OL); Derex Woumnm (WRs/DBs); Cornelius Frazier (RBs).

RETURNING STARTERS: Jaquan Williams (Sr., QB/DB); Jacorey Belvin (Sr., FB/LB); Bryan Ellis (Sr., OL/DL); Tremel Emanuel (Jr., FB/LB).

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Anthony Murray (Jr., RB/DB); Kavoris Pollard (Sr., RB/LB); Keon Jenkins (Jr., OL/DL); Joquil Chester (Sr., WR/DB); Anfrenee Williams (Jr., RB/DE); Joshua King (Sr., TE/DE); Terrey Emanuel (Jr., WR/DB).

PLAYERS IN COLLEGE OR HIGHER: Justin Scott-Wesley (Fr., WR, UGA); Jessie Atkins (Jr., RB, Albany State).

2012 Mitchell County Eagles' schedule

Aug. 31 at Clinch County, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 7 at Pelham, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Albany, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 vs. Brooks County, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 vs. Miller County, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 at Randolph-Clay, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 12 at Terrell County, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Stewart County, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 26 vs. Calhoun County,7:30 p.m.

Nov. 9 at Seminole County, 7:30 p.m.

BOLD denotes GHSA Region 1-A game