Corey Neely and Buddy Byers are no strangers to competing for football state championships. But this Sunday at Biloxi Indian Stadium in Biloxi, Miss., the former South Pointe stars will be suiting up for Georgia Military College as it faces East Mississippi Community College for the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championship in Mississippi Bowl VI.
The top-ranked Independent champion Bulldogs (11-0) won the NJCAA national title in 2001 and finished as national runners-up in 2002 and 2005. The second-ranked Lions, 11-0, captured the NJCAA championship in 2011. Both teams come into the game featuring explosive offenses. Georgia Military leads the nation in rushing offense with 299 yards per and has won its games by an average score of 46-17, while East’s offense has netted over 600 yards per contest and is averaging a 63-7 winning margin over its opponents.
The outcome may be decided on the defensive side of the football. Georgia Military has the nation’s 10th-ranked defense that’s forced 36 turnovers, tallied 38 sacks, and scored five touchdowns. On the flip side, the Lions have the top-ranked defense in the NJCAA, having caused 40 turnovers with 61 sacks and eight touchdowns scored.
Neely, a free safety for Georgia Military, has recorded 28 tackles (18 solo), recovered one fumble, and intercepted three passes, one of which was a dazzling 85-yard return for a touchdown that helped the Bulldogs upset Iowa Western Community College, 48-38, and end the defending NJCAA champions’ 18-game winning streak.
When asked if the impact of playing for a national title had registered, he replied, “No, it hasn’t set in yet, but I think it will that day.” Byers added, “Not really. I’m kind of used to playing in championship games. I just want to add to the collection.”
Neely and Byers played important roles for South Pointe in 2011 as the Stallions defeated Bluffton 42-27 to claim the Class AAA state championship. In that game Neely returned two punts for touchdowns – one for 57 yards and the other for 53.
Both agree that being on a big stage can have an impact on playing at the next level.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Byers said. “It’s something a lot of kids don’t get to do. I know there will be other coaches out there for me to show my talent.”
During the regular season Byers recorded 15 tackles, along with one fumble recovery and one interception.
“It will be a great opportunity for me personally,” said Neely, “because a lot of scouts will be there and it will help in the long run if I have a good game.”
The duo’s contribution has been huge, according to coach Bert Williams, who led the Bulldogs to their national championship in only his second year as the school’s head man.
“They have been great additions,” Williams said. “Corey started most of the year and Buddy (cornerback) has been making an impact. It’s hard to imagine we would be where we are today without them. And the fact that we are playing in the postseason offers exposure to these players.
“We have had all kinds of schools on our campus. A lot of guys from both teams playing Saturday are getting looks all across the country.”
Adding to the increased exposure is the fact that the Bulldogs took their show on the road during the regular season to West Virginia, Utah, Iowa, and Virginia.
At Georgia Military, the rigors of playing football go hand-in-hand with adapting to the military lifestyle.
“We have morning formation, have our uniforms ironed, shoes shined, and be everywhere on time,” said Byers. “But it’s a great education and being here teaches you a lot of life’s lessons.”
Supporting his friend’s statement Neely said, “You have to be a cadet, play football and be a student. It helps you learn to appreciate the important things in life. You’re always on a strict time schedule.”
The decision that both athletes made to attend Georgia Military was partly influenced by two former Northwestern players.
“Keon (Stowers) and Jarrett (Neely) told me it would be a good look for me to get on the right track,” said Neely.
Byers said, “They told me the sky’s the limit if I stay focused and nothing’s too hard that you can’t handle.”
Stowers currently plays for the University of Kansas and Neely is at Alabama State.
“The toughest part for guys that are here is that they can’t come and go as they please, and they must maintain proper appearance,” Williams said. “Corey and Buddy have adjusted well as we have had very few issues at all. They both have great attitudes.”
“We like kids in (Rock Hill). We have always found a high level of talent there that are extremely well coached.”
And although the Milledgeville campus is several hours away from Rock Hill, both South Pointe products admit they keep up with local football news.
“Of course,” Byers said. “I went to a South Pointe game couple weeks ago. I wished they could have made it to the state championship.”
They also had high praise for former high school teammate and current University of South Carolina standout Jadeveon Clowney. Neely said, “He will do well (in the NFL) because he’s a freak of nature.” Echoing Neely, Byers added, “he has size, power, and agility – just an unbelieveable talent.”
And although the next level is certainly a desire for the former Stallions, it is this Sunday that occupies all of their current thinking.
“We are leaving out Friday for Biloxi, Mississippi to play for a national championship,” said Byers. “I’m real excited!”