Five years ago, Todd Breland made a decision that impacted Laurel’s football program in a big way.
The Golden Tornadoes coach moved quarterback Keon Howard and wide receiver Octavious Cooley up to play varsity. It was the spring of their eighth-grade year.
The payoff arrived last year. Howard and Cooley were stars on a loaded squad that beat Oxford 29-26 in the Class 5A championship. It was the Golden Tornadoes’ third title in school history.
“I feel like a proud dad,” Breland said. “I’ve watched them basically grow up together in the system. I knew at a very young age the kind of kids they were and the ability they had. Being able to see them both make the Dandy Dozen kind of caps that off.”
This year’s Dandy Dozen is the elite of a loaded 2016 class in Mississippi.
The class’ four defensive linemen are each ranked in the ESPN 300. Both quarterbacks are future Division I players.
And for the first time in its 27-year history, the Dandy Dozen has three sets of teammates.
Besides the two state champions from Laurel, the list includes Oxford wide receiver D.K. Metcalf and quarterback Jack Abraham and Starkville wide receiver A.J. Brown and defensive lineman Kobe Jones.
With so much of the state’s top talent on these teams, it’s no a surprise that their expectations are nothing less than playing inside Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium during the 2015 MHSAA state championships this December.
“It definitely shows that Starkville, Laurel, us (Oxford), those are probably going to be three teams who make it to state,” Abraham said. “It’s going to be us and Laurel for sure in the state championship again if we take care of business.”
Abraham and Metcalf have been playing together since they were in the sixth grade.
In the future, the four-star wide-out will be catching passes from five-star quarterback Shea Patterson.
But it’s the chemistry he’s developed with Abraham that has turned Metcalf into one of the top receivers in the nation.
“Jack works just as hard as anybody else,” Metcalf said. “He studies defenses, he can break down the defense when we’re on the field. I just know the potential he has. If you give him a shot, he won’t disappoint you.”
It’s the same for Howard and Cooley, where making big plays has become second nature.
“It’s that look he gives me,” Cooley said. “When we’re in the huddle going over the play, we just stare each other down when we know our team is doing something wrong. We’ll be looking at each other and he knows what that means. It’s time for us to take over.”
In 2014, Starkville went from an underdog in Region 2-6A to a state semifinalist.
At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Brown burst onto the scene with 52 receptions for 1,019 yards and 16 touchdowns, starting the debate that there may be room at the top for a different No. 1 wide receiver in the state.
“He’s a game-changer,” Brown’s teammate Kobe Jones said. “His will to win matches mine.”
Jones is part of a defense that recorded five shutouts last year. The defensive end pulled double duty on the offensive line, too, for a Yellowjackets attack that averaged 245.8 passing yards per game.
Starkville’s win over West Point in 2014 was Brown’s breakout game. His 195-yard, four-touchdown performance jump-started his recruitment.
“It was unbelievable,” Jones said. “He would catch the ball and there would be four defenders in front of him. He got past them every time.”
Contact Courtney Cronin at (601) 961-7091 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @CourtneyRCronin on Twitter.