Photo By Gabriel Stovall
Rising junior quarterback Mario Atkinson has impressed during summer passing leagues this offseason. “His progress is way above where I thought it’d be now,” said offensive coordinator Nathan Wardlaw.
Jonesboro football players decided early in the offseason that they wanted to do whatever it took for them to build upon the success last season, which ended at 9-2 and a playoff berth.
That’s all coach Tim Floyd needed to know in order to make the next move to help his team improve.
“Once coach Floyd said that we would get into more 7-on-7U tournaments if everybody was willing, everybody said yes,” Jonesboro offensive coordinator Nathan Wardlaw said. “You can workout and run and lift with your peers on the team, but the true competition comes when you’re playing against other people you don’t know who are trying to beat you.”
This past weekend, with a second place finish in the Big South National Qualifiying 7-on-7 Passing League Tournament, the Cardinals’ offseason investment seems to be paying huge dividends.
“Our finish in that tournament is just an example of the hard work we’ve been putting in all summer,” said Floyd, who is entering his fourth year at the helm at Jonesboro. “I think it’s all starting to pay off.”
Held last weekend at Fayetteville’s Whitewater High School, the top five finishers earned an automatic berth into the 7-on-7U National Championship Tournament on July 19-22 in Washington, D.C. Mount Zion also qualified for the national tournament with a third place finish.
For Cameron Sutton, this trip to the nation’s capital signifies that Jonesboro football has climbed an extra step on the ladder of high school football prominence.
“This is just a great accomplishment for us to even get to D.C.,” said Sutton who, along with running back/safety Patrick Petty, will represent Georgia as an all-star at the IMG Madden 7-on-7 Passing League National Championships on Friday in Bradenton, Fla. “This trip gives us the opportunity to go against better competition and get more exposure.”
Before these last two years, such exposure had been hard to come by for the Cardinals. Their prior absence in some of the nation’s best summer passing league venues was not by design. But the steady rise of Cardinal football since Floyd began pacing the sidelines makes Jonesboro football hard to ignore.
“I think we’ve always wanted to do a lot more of these kinds of tournaments,” Wardlaw said. “But the better we’ve been over the last couple of years the more our name has gotten out there more. We’re getting invitations to these tournaments that we were overlooked for in the past, and this good competition is helping put our program on the map.”
Wardlaw rounded up the usual Cardinal suspects like cornerback/wide receiver Taurean Ferguson, Sutton and Petty when asked who stood out for Jonesboro this past weekend.
But he also mentioned a new name — Mario Atkinson.
Wardlaw said the rising junior who’s expected to step into the starting quarterback shoes of Cedric Nettles has been using the summer passing league experiences to exceed expectations.
“Mario has come a long way from this time last year,” Wardlaw said. “From the moment he came onto campus, I knew he could be a good quarterback with some work. His progress is way above what I thought it would be right now.”
Wardlaw said he still wants Atkinson to improve his ability to read defensive coverages. Unlike the dual-threat Nettles, Wardlaw says Atkinson’s strength is in the pocket as a passer. That’s why Atkinson’s summer has been specifically rich.
“It feels really great to have the succes we’re having this summer,” Atkinson said.
And while he made the most of his time learning on the junior-varsity level, Atkinson says it’s time to take his game to new heights.
“Now, as I’m repping with varsity, the plays are coming easier,” he said. “I’m looking for my next season to be a breakout season for me. I’m ready to ball out these last two years.”
He and the rest of the Jonesboro bunch will look to continue building regular season momentum against national competition in Washington D.C.
And they’re not just happy to be there either. They have greater goals in mind.
“If we can go up there and make it to the final four or the championship that will do nothing but boost our confidence,” Wardlaw said.
Regardless of the results in D.C., Sutton said the experience will be priceless as Jonesboro prepares for the big prize of a 2012 playoff run.
“This trip is just going to give us more practice, more mental reps and more physical prepration to get us ready to compete for the coming season,” he said.