By Derrick Mahone
As a first-year starting quarterback last season, Dennis Johnson wasn't asked to do too much for the North Clayton offense.
With a highly recruited running back in Clarence Jackson in the backfield, was pretty much told to get the back into his hands. Johnson did as Jackson led the state in rushing with 1,954 yards and 31 touchdowns in leading the Eagles to the Class AAAA quarterfinals last season.
With Jackson now a freshman at Ole Miss, Johnson will play an even larger role in the Eagles' offense. The junior said he is ready for the challenge.
"I don't see it as being under pressure," Johnson said. "We have some running backs on the team that I believe in."
Johnson played some on the varisty during the 2008 season, but most of his time came on the JV squad. After returning starter Milton Artiss transferred to Westlake before spring practice last year, he inherited the starting job. Eagles head coach Rodney Hackney said that Johnson's inability to grasp the full offense as a freshman was a reason he had limited varsity snaps.
But Johnson proved a quick study last season in leading the Eagles into the playoffs.
Sophomore running back Ladarrius Mathis returns to the offense to help fill some of the void left by Jackson. North Clayton coach Rodney Hackney said Mathis has bulked up some to handle a lot more of the rushing carries.
Mathis reported to fall camp at 180 pounds.
"He is the man now," Hackney said. "He has shown some durability. Ladarrius has added to size in order to carry the ball 15-20 times a game. He will be an important part of our run attack."
Johnson teammates are fully confident in his ability to become more of a leader.
"He is a good quarterback," Eagles senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. "He is ready to lead this team."
"Dennis really came on strong during the summer," he said. "He was a little off in our scrimmage, but we expect him to bounce back. He is now a veteran on the team and will be counted on to be a leader. Now, there is a little more pressure because he has to make plays.
We know what he is capable of doing."
The Eagles' Wing-T offense could feature a little more passing with the return of wide receivers Khalil Stinson, a junior, and Michael Ross, a senior. Johnson said the emergence of the receivers wlll give the offense another dimension.
"Those are some big-ime playmakers for us," Johnson said. "Although he (Jackson) is gone, I don't think we lose much. With a good running back and the receiver we have, the ball is going every where this season."
Last season, the Eagles reached the Class AAAA quarterfinals, where they lost to Clarke Central, 52-14 in Athens. This was the team's first trip to the quarterfinals since the 1997 season.
The loss to Clarke Central was definitely disheartening since the Eagles were never really in the game. North Clayton turned the ball over five times, all fumbles that led to Clarke Central scores. Clarke Central scored on the game's opening drive, and again when the Eagles fumbled on the ensuing kickoff.
"That Clarke Central game was a wakeup call for us," Johnson said. "That lost has motivated us to go full tilt."
North Clayton has put together consecutive double-digit win season for the first time since 1962-63. The school has never had three straight season of at least 10 wins.
"We can't forget about what happened last year in the playoffs," Herrera said. "Our main focus this year is to win it all."