There was a lot of talk about area college teams and football championships this season. Only one team is still poised to pull it off.
Georgia Military College will try to win its second junior college national championship on Sunday in Biloxi, Miss., in a 1-2 battle of unbeatens. The 11-0 Bulldogs take on 11-0 East Mississippi State at 2 p.m. in the Mississippi Bowl – the NJCAA’s version of the BCS Championship game.
It’s exactly where former Burke County star DaVonte Lambert expected to be before the season even began.
“When I met all the recruits during the summer I knew right then we’d be going to the national championship,” said the Bulldogs’ second-year defensive end, who stands 6-foot-3, 278 pounds.
Lambert ended up at Georgia Military in 2012 for the same reasons most other junior college players do – to make up for academic deficiencies in high school in hopes of advancing to a four-year college. The moment he arrived in Milledgeville, Ga., Lambert was on a mission to improve himself in every way.
“From the day he walked on campus he’s been a great worker and just fun to work with,” said coach Bert Williams, who is from Augusta. “He’s always asking, ‘How can I be a better player?’ Had zero issues. Always serious and mature in approaching what he needed to do. His off-field demeanor is the same as his on-field demeanor.”
Lambert’s on-field demeanor has made him the No. 1 team’s leader. When players held a vote for team captains for the national championship game, it was “Pee Wee” Lambert who got the most votes.
“Obviously on the field he’s been a great force and produced well for us, but as big an impact has been his leadership,” Williams said. “Nobody has worked harder than him in the weight room; nobody worked harder than him on the field. When he talks, the other kids listen. He was the highest vote-getter of all the guys on the team for captain going to the bowl game. Offense, defense, everybody kind of looks to him. It’s the example he sets on a daily basis.”
Lambert says the role just comes naturally to him as it did in high school when he helped lead the Bears to the Class AAA state championship in 2011.
“It means a lot knowing that the players trust me to be a leader for them,” Lambert said. “On and off the field I kind of gather the players and make sure they’re focused on the books and on the field. There’s been a lot going on with the cadet corps and some of the players get frustrated with what’s going on. I just let them know we’ve got to stay focused.”
That message is one he has delivered repeatedly since the Bulldogs capped their perfect regular season and have been preparing to face the highest-scoring team in the nation. East Mississippi State averages 63.2 points per game, albeit against a conference schedule that doesn’t compare with the independent nationwide grind that Georgia Military just went through.
“It’s got a lot of our players thinking a lot,” Lambert said. “I’ve told them not to think too much. It’s just a regular game. Stay focused on the task at hand.”
Ten days after the game ends, Lambert should be ready to sign his early commitment papers and enroll at Tennessee in January. With 36 tackles – including a team-high eight sacks and four fumble recoveries – he’s been the Bulldogs’ most prominent recruit.
“Strong dose of humility off field and a great motor and skill set on it,” Williams said. “Those qualities caught the attention of recruiters as far away as Southern Cal. He was a very widely and heavily recruited guy. Good combination of being strong in the run game but also a good up-field burst and a knack for getting to the passer. Big enough to hold his own but quick enough to play the edge.”
He visited Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee before deciding on the Vols (though Auburn continues to try to flip him).
“Me and my grandmother (Margie Grant) had a long talk on my decision and she played a big role,” he said. “She wanted me to go to Tennessee so I picked Tennessee. We went up and got a lot of love. She loved the coaches and felt like that would be the best place for me.”
Lambert’s success is no shock to his high school coach, Eric Parker.
“I don’t think there’s a person in Burke County that is surprised by his success,” Parker said. “He’s a smart kid that has really bought into hard work and preparation. I look for even bigger things out of him in the future.”
Georgia Military hopes that future starts with a national championship.
“Appropriately so, we believe this will be our toughest game,” Williams said. “We’re going to need to do a good job getting pass rush and constricting scrambling. They score a lot of points. It’s going to be a strength-versus-strength matchup, and we’re going to need DaVonte’s leadership and production to get the win we want to get.”
Lambert is one of a handful of local players on the Georgia Military roster, including its top two receivers Montez McGuire (North Augusta/Appalachian State commit) and Zireycus Letman (Lincoln County) and starting fullback Tayari Thompson (Butler). Even Lambert’s backup, Blake Robbins (Silver Bluff), ranks third on the team in sacks.
Thompson has been the primary blocking back in the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense that features rushing leader Jovon Robinson.
“We’ve got the No. 1 back in JUCO,” Thompson said. “It feels good to be a part of that. … This is my first championship game. You won’t get another chance like it. I’m ready to play.”