By Billy Watkins
Blaine McCorkle has received numerous texts this week referring to the Biblical story of David vs. Goliath.
And with good reason.
His Belhaven University football team has drawn a doozy of a challenge in the opening round of the Division III playoffs. The Blazers will face North Central College on the road in Naperville, Ill. at noon Saturday.
North Central has won the national championship two of the past three seasons. It has outscored opponents 617 to 121 this year and its quarterback has thrown 34 touchdown passes and 35 incompletions.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” McCorkle says. “But I do know that David won his battle against the giant, so we’ll just focus on that.
“We’re going up there and give them all we’ve got. We’re going to carry a Mississippi flag with us and we don’t take that lightly.”
For Belhaven, it’s already been an historic season. The Blazers are 9-1 and champions of the USA South Conference in just their second year as a member.
Their offense, under coordinator Carson Stewart, is averaging 39.4 points per game. “It could be more, but we don’t try to run the score up on people,” McCorkle says.
The defense, led by coordinator Matt Conner, has allowed just 96 points all season, which ranks ninth nationally.
Such success has been a long time coming.
In 2018, McCorkle took over a program that had won 11 games in the previous five seasons. His teams have 24 wins the past three years, and his latest is competing on the national stage.
“It’s been a real humbling experience,” says McCorkle, now in his 26th season as a college coach. “One of the biggest things is, we’ve recruited some really smart players who love football and want to get a degree.
“Our program isn’t easy. We grind and we hold our kids to high standards.”
His teams have set records on the field, but McCorkle says they’ve also earned the highest GPA marks in program history.
Division III schools can’t offer scholarships, but they can provide financial aid — just as the university can for any student.
And to his credit, McCorkle has found some gold nuggets on the recruiting trail.
Running back Kolbe Blunt, the conference’s Player of the Year out of Mobile, Ala., has become the leading rusher (3,370 yards) in program history. He’s gained 1,230 yards and scored 17 touchdowns this season.
“We knew he was good when he first got here,” McCorkle says. “But I don’t think we knew he would accomplish things to this extreme. He just kept working and kept getting better.
“He’s unique. He could play for a whole lot of people. And I want everybody to know this — no player in Mississippi has had a bigger impact on their team than Kolbe has had on ours.”
Blunt (5-10, 220 pounds) is the Blazers’ nominee for the Conerly Trophy, awarded annually through the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame to the state’s top collegiate player.
McCorkle has spent most of his career as an offensive line coach, so it’s no surprise his teams can run the football. The Blazers average 288 yards per game on the ground, which ranks fourth nationally.
“We can throw it,” McCorkle says. “LaGrange (Ga.) stacked the box against us, determined to stop the run. Our quarterback, Tim Johnson, threw five touchdowns that day.
“But running the ball is what we do best, so I often tell people, ‘We can throw it all over the field or we can run the ball and win games.”
They’ve run the past couple of years behind two tackles who have caught the attention of pro scouts.
“We’ve had 20 NFL teams come here to see them,” McCorkle says.
It started when McCorkle took Cole McAlpin — a 6-foot-3, 315 pounder who played at Simpson Academy — to an NFL pro day. He ran a sub-5.0 40 and bench pressed 505 pounds.
“That got folks’ attention real quick,” McCorkle says.
Once the scouts began watching film of McAlpin, they noticed the other tackle — Kendrioun Boatman, who is 6-3, 310 out of McAdams High School, located in Attala County.
“I got a call from a longtime sports writer, Austin Bishop,” McCorkle says. “He told me about Kendrioun and said he wasn’t getting a lot of attention from the bigger schools.
“If Kendrioun doesn’t make it in the NFL, I’m gonna hire him. He’s going to be a great coach one day.”
Boatman also preaches every third or fourth Sunday back home in McAdams.
McAlpin and Boatman have already earned their degrees. “You’ll hear that a lot about our players,” McCorkle says.
McCorkle, a long snapper at LSU in the late 1990s, spent several seasons at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
“I really enjoyed my time at Liberty and it reminds me a lot of Belhaven,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I took this job.. Both have a great family atmosphere. They’re both Christian schools, and that was important to me.
“Another reason was to be closer to my four kids, who are in Baton Rouge with their mom. Being a good father is important to me, so getting closer to them played a big part.”
McCorkle says one of the most important things he’s learned through the years is that “coaching is a calling.”
“I love being around players like we have here,” he says. “We want them to work hard on the field and in the classroom. Love your fellow teammates. And that philosophy seems to be working for us.”