By JOEL COLEMAN
On arguably Mississippi high school football's brightest preseason stage, the Starkville Yellowjackets discovered there are plenty of question marks surrounding their offense.
Perhaps more importantly, SHS found out it has the right tools to overcome the current deficiencies.
Facing McComb in jamboree action on Saturday at Mississippi State's Davis Wade Stadium, the Starkville offense sputtered all day long, but the Jackets rode a 44-yard touchdown run from quarterback Gabe Myles and a dominating defensive effort to a 7-0 win.
Though Starkville head coach Jamie Mitchell was glad his club found a way to come out on top, he understood the Jackets have to develop more offensive firepower with the season set to open on Friday at Noxubee County.
"We lost every skill player from every offensive position (from last season)," said Mitchell. "But we're not going to use that as an excuse. We've got guys who are capable of making plays and they'll get better."
Against McComb however, Starkville simply couldn't find a way to move the ball with any consistency, struggling with missed blocking assignments and turnovers to give Mitchell plenty of cause for concern.
"I was very disappointed offensively," said Mitchell. "It looked like we had confusion and I'm not real sure why. We didn't get lined up right and just played slow on that side of the ball. We've got to do a little better job of coaching them up and go back to the drawing board and figure out what we can do."
For all the worries the sluggish offense provided Mitchell and his staff, Saturday's jamboree did once again exhibit the big-play ability of Myles.
With 9:41 remaining in the second of two 20-minute halves, Myles broke loose for the game's only score.
Enabled, in large part, by a Preston Baker block along the sideline that took out a McComb defender in pursuit, Myles cut and slashed his way to the end zone on a play that looked as though it was taken straight from a video game.
Making Myles' effort more impressive was the fact that it came in his first play back after having his breath knocked out just moments earlier while rolling out to pass.
"My breath was gone and I had to come out that play," said Myles. "But I know that I've got to step up and be a leader of the team and I've got to come through when it's time to make a play."
Myles came through in a big way Saturday, accounting for 111 of Starkville's 158 total yards.
Myles finished 5-for-10 passing for just 35 yards and an interception, but ran for 76 yards, which included his electric touchdown scamper.
"(Myles) did a great job and he's going to give us a chance," said Mitchell. "He can fly and we've got to find ways to get him in the open field.
"But we've got to find some more guys who can make plays for us. We spread the ball around a little bit (Saturday), but nobody really stepped up and said 'Hey, I'm a proven guy. Get me the ball.' That's a concern. We've got to have guys who can make plays when they get touches."
For all the troubles of the offense, SHS had no problems finding playmakers defensively.
The Jackets put a stranglehold on McComb all game long, limiting the Tigers to just 83 total offensive yards.
"We've talked since the spring that (defense) has got to be our identity with all the new starters on offense," said SHS defensive coach Brooks Oakley. "We've got to play great defense. That's our mentality."
The Starkville defense was especially tough on third down conversion attempts as the Jackets kept the Tigers away from the first down marker on four of McComb's five third-down tries.
Such a display fits right into Oakley's strategy of ensuring the defense does everything in its power to aid SHS's scuffling offense.
"We talk about it daily, (the pressure) is going to be on us," said Oakley. "I just told (the team), if we can score three points in a game, we should win. That's the mentality we've got to have."
Three points would have been plenty for SHS on Saturday thanks to the defense that also excited Mitchell.
"Those guys did a great job of running to the ball," said Mitchell. "They were lights out on defense."
Mitchell specifically mentioned David Fair, Eric Rogers and the SHS secondary as key defensive contributers Saturday, but was proud of the entire unit.
"Just very pleased defensively," said Mitchell.
Now, Mitchell and the Jackets are looking for a way to complement that defense with some offensive punch.
Myles says it's his goal to make sure SHS's offensive attack can also carry a fair share of the load in 2011, despite the difficulties of Saturday.
"Coach Oakley says if the offense scores three points, we should win the game," said Myles. "We don't want it to be like that. We want to score 50 points and win games."