Photo by Derrick Mahone / Lovejoy quarterback Alejandro Bennifield has thrown a county-best 22 touchdowns this season.
They’re at the center of everything — reading defenses, commanding the huddle and making split-second decisions that can be the difference between winning and losing.
Clayton County’s quarterbacks this season have been exciting and successful, throwing for impressive statistics and leading some of the top teams in the state.
With the regular season in its final week, we take a look at how some of the county’s best at the position have fared this season.
Asania Aderhold, Riverdale
Height/Weight: 6-2 1/2, 200
This season: Aderhold was inserted into the lineup against Spalding several weeks ago. And in 2 1/2 games, he has provided a much needed jolt in the Riverdale offense. The former junior varsity quarterback has completed 34 of 52 passes (65 percent) for 646 yards with six touchdowns and just one interception. That’s an average of 215 yards per game.
Coach says: “Asania has come in to give immediate spark for us. He’s a bigger quarterback who presents different challenges for a defense to defend. He’s got a strong arm, he can run. He’s growing socially. He’s not afraid to step up when guys are looking for him to step up. We’re trying to get him peaking to help us make this playoff run.” — Olten Downs, Head coach.
Skills: When you look at Aderhold he easily passes the eye test as the prototypical dual-threat quarterback. His size and speed is a great compliment to a cannon of an arm and is enough to give any defensive coordinator fits.
Leadership: Downs said Aderhold’s experience running the JV squad has helped him transition more easily into a varsity role. His vocal leadership abilities are showing up at the right time as the Raiders make ready to try and clinch their first playoff appearance since 2005.
Alejandro Bennifield, Lovejoy
Height/Weight: 6-1, 220
This season: With one of the Southern Crescent’s most talented receiving corps, the Tennessee-Chattanooga commitment has completed 93 of 153 passes (61 percent) and 1,673 yards with 22 touchdown passes and just four interceptions — quite impressive considering the Sept. 7 Colquitt County is the only contest he’s played in past the first half.
Coach Al Hughes says: “He’s done a great job for us. Not just this year, but since he’s been on campus. He’s just been a very effective quarterback. One of the best in our school’s history.”
Skills: Although Bennifield has, and can make plays with his feet, extensive time in 7-on-7 summer passing leagues has increased his arm strength. The ball comes out with more zip and velocity, and coach Hughes says Bennifield’s accuracy has improved from last year as well.
Leadership: Bennifield has been the undisputed field general for the No. 7 Wildcats since transferring from Jonesboro before his junior season. He has enjoyed a 22-2 record as starting quarterback, losing only to Tucker in last year’s Class AAAA state championship game and an early season 14-7 loss at then seventh-ranked Colquitt County. Lovejoy has snagged two region titles with Bennifield under center. With Bennifield at the Lovejoy controls, the Wildcats average margin of victory in eight games is a whopping 41.3 points.
Mario Atkinson, Jonesboro
Height/Weight: 6-2, 175
This season: In his first year as a starter, Atkinson leads Clayton County passers in completions, attempts and yards. He has gone 112 of 184 (60 percent) passing with 1,705 yards and 16 touchdowns to just four interceptions. He has also rushed for three scores.
Coach Nathan Wardlaw says: “The best thing he’s doing right now is getting the guys in the right position with his grasp of the offense to make plays that are even better than what is designed or called. He understands the little small things that can take a play that may not work and make it into a good play.”
Skills: Whereas last year’s starter Cedric Nettles was more of a dual-threat quarterback, Atkinson has prided himself on perfecting his ability as a pure passer. At one point this season he had a stretch of four straight 200-yard passing performances.
Leadership: Stats and physical attributes aside, Atkinson has earned the respect of his teammates as a leader. And that began to take place during the offseason as he developed a bond between his gifted group of receivers headlined by a couple of SEC school commitments in Taurean Ferguson (Vanderbilt) and Cameron Sutton (Tennessee) during spring ball and summer passing leagues. Atkinson can lead his seventh-ranked Cardinals to their first back-to-back winning seasons since the 2001-02 seasons, not to mention the school’s first ever back-to-back playoff appearance.
Jay Murray, Drew
Height/Weight: 6-1, 185
This season: With a four-headed monster at tailback, Murray hasn’t been called upon to do quite as much this year. But the second-year starter has made enough plays with his arm to keep defenses honest. He’s gone 51-of-110 (47 percent) with 723 yards and seven scoring tosses to go along with six interceptions.
Coach Jarrett Laws says: “He is the prototype of what our program represents. On the field and off the field he is the consummate professional. He is the microcosm of what a Drew Titan is. I wouldn’t choose any other general to lead the soldiers on the field.”
Skills: The lefty is another who can beat you running and passing. But his intangible qualities are what puts him over the top as a signal caller. Laws calls him a “film junkie,” which probably explains why he has vastly improved in the minutiae of being an efficient quarterback.
Leadership: In his two years under center, Murray has proven his leadership qualities over and over again. Last year he achieved all-region honors and this season he has led the Titans to the brink of a second straight playoff appearance in just the school’s fourth year of existence — all while overcoming the loss of his mother to leukemia in March.
Courtney Heard, Morrow
Height/Weight: 6-0, 170
This season: The Mustangs began the season by implementing a two-quarterback system in their first year with former Florida state champion coach Larry Foster. But Cervantes left the team midway through the season, giving Heard complete control of the offense. Despite its 1-8 record, Heard has produced 1,418 total yards — 1,071 coming through the air, completing 60 of 135 throws (44 percent) — with eight total touchdowns.
Coach Greg Kirkland says: “By watching this guy play all year, as a junior, he started out with little confidence and kind of built up his confidence as the season has progressed.”
Skills: A definite dual-threat quarterback, Heard has begun to come into his own toward the end of his first year under Foster’s system. His fleet-footed nature can stress defenses that try to load up the box against the run or blitz him profusely. His throwing accuracy and consistency will continue to be a work in progress during the offseason as he prepares for life after senior leading receiver Sterling Taylor.
Leadership: After the departure of Cervantes, Heard has taken 85 percent of the snaps under center for the Mustangs. The more comfortable he becomes in Foster’s offense, the more he’ll be looked to as a coach on the field. Heard’s budding leadership capabilities were best on display when he rolled up 240 total yards, including an 11-of-16, 160-yard passing performance against Forest Park on Sept. 7. That performance helped Morrow end its 11-game losing streak with the 12-6 win.
Rodricous Gates, Mundy’s Mill
Height/Weight: 6-0, 180
This season: Gates has completed 49 of 106 passes (46 percent) for 745 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s also gained 62 yards on 16 carries with three rushing touchdowns.
Coach Greg Manior says: “He has stepped up and gotten better each week. He didn’t have any varsity experience, but he hasn’t fallen to pieces. We feel he will get better with another year under his belt. We will send him to some camps this summer to get better with his skills.”
Skills: As a sophomore, Gates is still learning the system and developing his skills. With the emergence of running back Rodney Smith, who rushed for 1,575 yards before last week’s season-ending injury, the quarterback has not had to do much passing. He has good size and has shown a good skill set as he matures into his starting role.
Leadership: Manior looks for his leadership to improve as he matures. Teammates should have a lot of confidence in Gates as he leads the team on the brink of a playoff berth.