Juco spotlight: Trinity Valley C.C.

ATHENS, Texas – The numbers game starts high and ends low for the Trinity Valley Community College football team.

Since first playing football in the 1940s, the Cardinals have won 359 games and have produced 50 All-Americans all time. Twenty-four former Cardinals have made it to the NFL since 1986 and 18 conference championships have been won by the program altogether. Trinity Valley has also claimed two national championships, once in 1994 and again in 1997.

All of those numbers lead to the No. 1, which is where Trinity Valley wants to be at the end of this season. The Cardinals (2-1) currently are ranked No. 11 in the latest NJCAA poll and were as high as No. 6 before last week’s 44-20 loss to Iowa Western Community College (Council Bluffs, Iowa).

With an experienced group of sophomores, a nice crop of talented freshmen, a few big-name transfers and a dedicated coaching staff led by sixth-year head coach Brad Smiley, Trinity Valley is looking to return to the top of the junior college totem pole. It is one of the favorites in the highly competitive Southwest Junior College Football Conference.

“Last year, we had 16 guys sign to Division I teams,” Trinity Valley defensive coordinator/recruiting coordinator Will Reed said. “Right now, we have a chance to meet that mark and exceed that mark if some guys stay focused, stay healthy and do what they’re supposed to do.

“I truly feel our talent level is just as good as anybody else’s in the country. The guys understand at the end of the day, we’re training them to work hard and really understand what it’ll be like to be a Division I player.”

Talented line fuels the offense

Smiley had a total of 24 players sign national letters of intent to play at FBS, FCS or NAIA programs last season. The talent pool is loaded this year, and it all starts up front.

Offensive tackles Josiah St. John and Nykiren Wellington are two key transfers that have instantly helped the Cardinals. St. John, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound transfer from Fresno City (Calif.) Community College, holds more than 20 offers from programs such as Oklahoma State, Arkansas, West Virginia, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor, Ole Miss and others.

Wellington (6-7, 325) is expected to be heavily recruited once the season is over. Wellington is a transfer from TCU and brings FBS experience to the roster. Other offensive linemen to watch from a recruiting standpoint are Brandon Garrett (6-6, 280), Kenneth Milo (6-5, 300) and Buck Spurger (6-6, 320).

To Smiley and Reed, the backbone of that offensive line is center Shawn McKinney, a 6-foot-4, 355-pound tank who has generated looks from Oklahoma State, Baylor, Utah State and Memphis. McKinney is powerful and very elusive for a guy his size.

“He plays the game with a relentless passion,” Smiley said of McKinney. “He really took advantage of being around our two All-American linemen last year in Nate Richards, the starting center at Rice, and Travon Carter, the starting left guard for Eastern Kentucky. The way they played with tenacity, he’s doing his best trying to mimic that, and he’s getting it.”

Trinity Valley is averaging 44.7 points per game on offense. Quarterback Javia Hall, a transfer from UTEP, has thrown for nearly 500 yards and eight touchdowns in three games. Running back Rufus Mason is a downhill carrier who runs with a lot of power, and freshmen Thaddeus Stewart and Andrew Robinson are cat-quick options out the backfield. Robinson is averaging 11.5 yards per carry.

The Cardinals have a reliable crop of receivers and tight ends, led by Trent Momon, a 6-5, 200-pound freshman receiver who pledged to Texas A&M but did not qualify academically. Tight end Payton Owen is a blocking specialist with good hands, while fellow tight end Cade Carter is a pass-catching option with solid blocking skills.

Sophomores Adrian Henderson, Drew Hellriegel and Robert "Buddy" Nunn, three speedy receivers who run good routes, also are expected to be major contributors for Trinity Valley. Nunn signed with Colorado State out of high school.

Front seven one to watch on defense

The Trinity Valley defense features several players who could be immediate standouts for a BCS program next season. Two of those athletes are defensive tackle Quincy Russell and defensive end Kewan Alfred.

Russell (6-4, 308) and Alfred (6-3, 245) have been courted by some of the top schools since high school. Russell, once a Texas commit, has offers from Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Nebraska, TCU and others. Alfred has offers from Louisiana Tech, Utah State, Ole Miss, UNLV and is garnering high interest from Alabama.

“Quincy commands the middle,” Smiley said. “He’s a 310-pound kid who can run. He’s just a big athlete, and he’s tough to cut. With Kewan, you’re getting a 245-pounder who runs a 4.6 [40-yard dash]. He loves the weight room, and he loves to work. Both of these guys are on pace to be December guys.”

Efrem Clark (6-3, 260) is a hybrid lineman who can play defensive tackle and defensive end effectively. Raphael Cox (6-3, 265) and Charles Tisby (6-2, 270) also provide the line with an extra boost. Two others to keep an eye on are defensive end Jhaustin Thomas (6-6, 240) and defensive tackle Carlos Hood (6-4, 255), both of whom signed with South Carolina. Thomas is expected to play football and basketball for Trinity Valley.

Dakorey Johnson is the lone FBS commit thus far for the Cardinals. The 6-3, 205-pound outside linebacker verbally committed to Texas Tech in July. Johnson, the younger brother of former NFL receiver Quincy Morgan, chose the Red Raiders over offers from Arkansas State and Memphis and high interest from Kansas State.

One player to watch on defense didn’t play defense last season. Vedial Johnson was moved to inside linebacker after excelling at running back for the Cardinals in 2011. The move has helped the 6-2, 225-pound sophomore get looks on both sides of the ball from Boise State, Utah, Texas State and UTSA.

“We sat down before spring ball, and we watched every run,” Smiley said. “I told him that he’s a Division I running back, but he’s an SEC/Big 12 athlete. If he wanted to play at that level, linebacker is what’s going to get him there. He really flies around and is doing a great job there.”

The surprise of the defense has been middle linebacker Davonte McMillian, a 5-foot-8, 220-pound freshman. Not the biggest player on the field, McMillian has been a sparkplug for the Cardinals, leading the team in tackles (19 total, 14 unassisted) and building his own personal highlight reel Sept. 1 against Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, when he made touchdown-preventing tackles during a goal-line stand three out of four plays.

The biggest concern prior to the season was in the secondary. The Cardinals replaced all four starters – who signed national letters of intent – but have filled in well with freshmen Brandon Stewart, L.B. Bates, Will Jackson and Darius White. Of the four, only White is a redshirt freshman.

Player to watch: Nykiren Wellington

Offensive tackle Nykiren Wellington knows what it takes to make it as an FBS athlete. He spent two years with TCU after finishing his high school career at San Antonio Holmes.

Wellington also knows that in order to make it at an FBS program, the academic lifestyle has to be equally on point as the athletic lifestyle. Wellington watched his grades slip, and he went from playing in the Mountain West Conference – and a year away from the Big 12 – to suiting up for one of the traditional Texas powers on the junior college circuit.

“It’s very different from being at a big university,” said Wellington, who redshirted his freshman year in 2010 and played in a couple of games in 2011. “Being [at TVCC] makes you thankful for what you have. At any moment, what you have can be gone.”

At 6-foot-7 and 325 pounds, the former TCU signee now is a top juco sleeper. Wellington doesn’t have any offers, but he is a versatile lineman who can play both tackle and guard. He’s also academically stable, maintaining a 3.0 GPA.

“Nykiren’s kind of like that sleeper for us,” Reed said. “When coaches call, they see Josiah St. John, but then they notice Nykiren. They do a little research, and then they say they’re interested. He’s got the Big East schools, the Pac-12 and the SEC checking him out.”

“It’s possible I’d go back to TCU if they offered again,” Wellington added. “If not, I would want to go somewhere like the SEC. Right now, nobody really knows I’m here.

“Being here really gets your motor going. Every day, you have really good competition to go against that will get you better. I’m excited knowing I get to go to practice every day against some good players.”