When the Poplarville coaching staff prepares for Friday’s Class 4A South State title game, they know they’ll have to find a way to slow down East Central’s potent ground game led by senior running back Tony Brown.
However, the biggest challenge may be determining a way to defend the Hornets’ main threat in the passing game — senior tight end/receiver Brad Cumbest.
Despite regularly facing double- and triple-teams, the 6-foot-6, 237-pound senior has 33 catches for 716 yards and nine touchdowns.
“He’s a mismatch nightmare,” East Central coach Seth Smith said. “He has an impact on the game even when we don’t throw him the ball.”
Cumbest verbally committed to Mississippi State in June and he’s given MSU coach Dan Mullen plenty to get excited about as he wraps up his high school career, soaring high for catches and showing improved speed.
Cumbest will play in his biggest game yet at 7 p.m. Friday when East Central travels to Poplarville for a battle of the unbeatens that’s been dubbed the “Hornet Bowl.”
It’s been a dream season for Cumbest and the rest of the East Central Hornets.
“I’ve had a lot of fun, the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.
Cumbest began to draw attention as a junior with 30 catches for 575 yards and six touchdowns, but it was during his sophomore season that Smith began to see something special.
“We played Lawrence County in the second round of the playoffs and he was an was a 180-pound sophomore playing wingback,” Smith said. “He caught four or five catches that night and you realized that kid has a ton of promise.
“He dedicated himself in the weightroom, kept getting bigger, faster and stronger. He has exploded into an excellent football player. What makes him special is he’s a high character kid. He’s a fun kid to be around. He’s always positive. He’s got a bright future.”
Cumbest returned the praise for his head coach.
“He’s a fun guy,” he said. “You want to be around him and he makes you work hard.
“Nobody likes a boring coach at all. You always want a fun coach.”
Cumbest has the ideal frame for a tight end, but it’s his speed that drew interest from SEC schools such as MSU and Ole Miss.
“You look at his initial burst and you wouldn’t realize that he is a 4.63-, 4.65-kid,” Smith said. “That’s something he developed over time and is a credit to him for his work.”
While the East Central offense mostly keeps it on the ground, senior quarterback Rylee Brown and Cumbest have hooked up in the passing game enough this year to make the Hornets a much more versatile and dangerous offense.
“There’s a great chemistry between those two,” Smith said. “You don’t see it a whole lot on Friday night, but they throw and catch a lot of balls throughout the week.”
The 6-foot-4, 175-pound Rylee Brown has completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 866 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception.
“I’ve said all along that he can start at a junior college next year if he’s given an opportunity,” Smith said of his quarterback. “We’re a run-first team, but he has an elite arm. He just needs an opportunity.”
When Rylee Brown tosses the ball downfield, there’s a good chance Cumbest will be on the other end jumping high above the defender.
“He’s just going to throw it, and I’m going to catch it,” Cumbest said. “That’s how it’s going to be.”