By Robert Wilson
Gardner Minshew. Chad Kelly. Brad Banks. And most recently Stetson Bennett. And there are many more.
All these quarterbacks got their start at Mississippi community colleges and went on to great careers at senior colleges.
Greenville Christian School senior quarterback DJ Smith – the Mississippi Gatorade Football Player of the Year – may be the next one. He verbally committed to Jones Junior College this week. Smith will make it official Wednesday on the NCAA spring National Signing Day, Greenville Christian coach Jon Reed McLendon said.
Mississippi college football fans know about Minshew and Kelly. Minshew, a Brandon High alumnus, led Northwest Mississippi CC to a national championship, finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy at Washington State and now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly led East Mississippi CC to a national championship then transferred to Ole Miss and led the Rebels to one of the best seasons in school history.
And then there was Hinds CC alumnus Brad Banks, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy with Iowa in 2002.
Bennett is the latest to transfer from a Mississippi juco and become a star quarterback, and he’s also a Jones alumnus. Bennett started at quarterback for Georgia and led the Bulldogs to the national championship this season.
Now, it’s Smith’s turn.
“I chose Jones because (Jones) Coach (Steve) Buckley and I built a strong relationship and he has been real with me since Day 1,” Smith said. “I like how Coach Buckley is strictly about business and making his program better. My expectations are to be the best player I can be and get that offer I have been working so hard for.”
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Smith passed for 2,516 passing yards and 37 TDs and ran for 940 rushing yards and 14 TDs and led Greenville Christian to a 12-1 record, its second straight MAIS Class 3A state title and a No. 74 national ranking by MaxPreps. Greenville Christian’s only loss was to Collins Hill (Ga.) High, ranked No. 12 nationally by MaxPreps. Smith accounted for 320 yards, five TDs and three 2-point conversions in a 46-8 victory over Canton Academy in the state title game.
Many compare Smith to the late Steve McNair, who starred at tiny Mount Olive High, was named the top Division I-AA player in the country at Alcorn State and had a successful, 13-year career in the NFL, winning the NFL MVP and reaching the Super Bowl. Smith is very difficult to bring down, has ability to avoid oncoming defensive lineman, great vision of the field, has a strong arm and can break tackles when he scrambles or on running plays.
“We’re really proud of DJ,” McLendon said. “The recruiting process has been challenging with the transfer portal and crowded rosters due to covid limiting the opportunities for high school seniors. He’s been very thoughtful throughout this process. DJ has taken his time to build relationships and weigh his options carefully. He’s chosen the place that he and his family feel is the best fit for him, and we are all so excited about watching him continue to grow at the next level. I would like to make clear – to avoid any speculation – that the decision for DJ to go the JUCO route has nothing to with academics. He’s a great student and a full qualifier. This is all about him positioning himself to have the best possible opportunity to pursue his dream and goal of playing college football at the highest level. I think DJ and Coach Buckley formed a great relationship, and there was a level of comfort there. We’re confident that at Jones, DJ will have the opportunity to develop in every aspect and be set up for future success.”
Smith has plenty of offers: Division I Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe and McNeese State, Division II Delta State and junior colleges from across Mississippi, Coahoma, Copiah-Lincoln, East Central, East Mississippi, Hinds, Holmes, Itawamba, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi Gulf Coast, Northwest Mississippi, and Southwest Mississippi.
Jones was the best fit for Smith and a lot of it had to do with Buckley and his success.
Buckley, a Natchez native and Southern Miss graduate, has coached at Southern Miss and LSU and been a successful high school coach in Mississippi for many years. Buckley, who has a combined coaching experience of more than 30 years, has a 42-14 record – a 75 percent winning percentage – in six seasons at Jones. His teams have ranked in the Top 10 in the country each of his six seasons at Jones. The Bobcats won their first seven games this season and moved to No. 1 in the nation and finished 8-2 and No. 8. During his time at Jones, 113 players have moved on to play in senior colleges across the country.
Buckley has had two former players at Jones become NFL first-round draft choices. Defensive back Johnathan Abram was taken by the Las Vegas Raiders in 2019 out of Mississippi State and defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw by the San Francisco 49ers in 2020 out of South Carolina.