Coast football teams have lagged behind in Class 6A since its creation in 2009, but the 2016 campaign could prove to be a turning point.
This season will mark the eighth since Class 6A came into being in the Mississippi High School Activities Association and only once has a team from the state's southernmost six counties earned a spot in the 6A South State title game – Ocean Springs in 2009. After cruising past Hattiesburg and Natchez in the first two rounds of the playoffs, that group of Greyhounds fell one win short of Jackson in a 27-6 loss to Oak Grove.
The Coast has yet to produce a serious state title contender in 6A and if you look at the playoff scores from a year ago you could make the argument that the area has only regressed in football. All four teams (Harrison Central, D'Iberville, Ocean Springs and Gulfport) lost their playoff games by an average of 25 points. Region 4-6A champion Gulfport, which was undefeated in region play, fell 42-6 to Meridian, the fourth seed out of 3-6A.
Those who have coached at programs in the Pine Belt and in the northern half of the state will give you a simple reason for the Coast's inability to succeed in the postseason, pointing out that there hasn't been enough talent in the area to keep up with schools like Oak Grove, Petal, Meridian and Brandon.
Heading into the 2016 campaign, there's good reason to believe that the trend is changing.
There are at least 24 prospects on Coast squads with Division I scholarship offers and 13 of those are in Region 4-6A. Those are big numbers considering only a handful of Coast kids have signed Division I in each of the last four years.
Harrison Central and St. Martin lead the way in 4-6A this season with three players with Division I offers each. The three Red Rebels with scholarship offers are senior quarterback Tavis Williams, senior offensive lineman Jacob Shoemaker and junior running back Keon Moore. The three Yellow Jackets are senior receiver Kalem Reddix, senior quarterback Wayne Overman and sophomore linebacker Dante Starks.
George County, which also has a number of players who should get interest from top junior colleges, has a pair of players with FBS offers – senior receiver Tyrese Fryfogle and freshman defensive lineman McKinnley Jackson. D'Iberville also has two – senior safety Tyler Barnes, a Southern Miss commit, and sophomore offensive lineman Louis Paul Smith.
Three other 4-6A schools each have one player with Division I offers – Biloxi senior receiver Tim Jones, Ocean Springs senior receiver Austin Williams (a Mississippi State commit) and Gulfport senior quarterback Cleveland Ford.
There were only four players in 4-6A who signed Division I last season. Gulfport had two, tight end Adarius Craft and running back Deon Cole, sign with Jackson State. D'Iberville had a pair sign FBS offers – defensive end Jacques Turner (Southern Miss) and Jaquelle Green (Texas-San Antonio).
There is again no heavy favorite to claim the 4-6A title in 2016. With talent spread out across the area, there should be plenty of parity in region play.
While there's clearly more talent on the Coast this season, there are questions to be answered for each team. St. Martin and George County are both loaded with offensive talent, but the two squads have plenty to prove after missing out on the postseason a year ago. Gulfport has to replace production lost in the ground game with the graduation of Cole. Ocean Springs, D'Iberville, Biloxi and Hancock will all be breaking in new quarterbacks.
It remains to be seen whether a big jump in Division I talent across the Coast translates into putting a team in the 6A state title game, but it's a move in the right direction.