Photo by Derrick Mahone Jonesboro junior quarterback Mario Atkinson threw for 195 yards and four touchdowns in the cardinals' 45-21 win over Eagle's Landing Friday. The first-year starter is averaging 162 passing yards a game so far.
By Gabriel Stovall
For Mario Atkinson, two plays define his first four games as Jonesboro’s starting quarterback.
Second game of the season; first road test at Westover in Albany. Cardinals trailing at the half in a hostile environment.
Except for a Patrick Petty kick return for a touchdown, the Jonesboro offense had sputtered during the first two quarters.
Offensive coordinator Nathan Wardlaw felt the need to challenge his team.
“I got on the guys about not playing the best in the first half,” Wardlaw said. “I challenged them to make plays, and Mario came out the second half with the mentality that we’re not going to lose this game.”
Enter the third quarter, where after a Westover penalty gave Jonesboro a first-and-five on it’s 37-yard line, Atkinson decided it was time to make something happen.
He came over to get the play from Wardlaw, but didn’t give the coach time to speak.
“I think we should throw it up to Cam (Cameron Sutton) and let him go make a play,” Atkinson said to his coach.
He went to the huddle and called a “56 go route.”
Sixty-three yards later, Sutton was celebrating in the endzone and Jonesboro was on its way to a come-from-behind victory.
“That’s when I realized he understands when it’s time for him to go make plays,” Wardlaw said.
That’s what Atkinson prides himself on.
The 6-foot-2 junior is a change of pace under center from last year’s dual-threat starter Cedric Nettles — now a freshman at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Which means Atkinson — more of a natural pocket passer than Nettles — has the chance to carve his own identity into the offense.
“I’m just improving as a leader on the field,” Atkinson said. “Being more vocal and just helping everybody as a leader on the team.”
His numbers are good. Through the first four games, Atkinson has completed 40 of 72 throws for 648 yards and seven touchdowns passes for a 55 percent completion rate.
Combine that with two rushing scores and just two interceptions, and Wardlaw feels good about Atkinson as a game manager as well as a playmaker.
“The best thing he’s doing right now,” Wardlaw said, “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.”
But it was one particular play in Jonesboro’s 34-33 loss at Griffin two weeks ago that defines the other side of Atkinson’s game — the part of his game he most urgently wants to improve.
Jonesboro entered the fourth quarter up 33-21 lead. Unlike the single digit lead it gave up against the Bears in last year’s playoff loss, this lead felt safe.
Perhaps too safe.
“I just think as a team we just got too relaxed,” he said. “We felt we were up two touchdowns, fourth quarter, seven minutes to go. We thought they can’t come back and they came out in that fourth quarter and played hard.”
One play in that quarter, where if the outcome of it were different, Atkinson believes he could have changed the outcome of the game.
Wardlaw called a “50,” a 10-yard stop route for the receiver. Atkinson said he can’t remember who his target was, but he definitely recalls why the play failed.
“I didn’t step into my throw,” he said. “The way I threw it caused our receiver to drop it. If he were able to catch it, we would’ve kept the drive alive.”
Instead, the turnover on downs resulted in a resurrection of hopes for Griffin. And a few plays later, the game’s momentum would swing in the Bears direction for good.
Believe it or not, that’s been his season’s highlight so far.
“It was the toughest loss against Griffin,” he said. “It really killed me because we lost by just one point.”
But he calls that game — and more specifically, that ill-fated pass play — a highlight because of what it has taught him.
“I didn’t step into that throw because I was rushing myself,” Atkinson said. “It’s something I’m still working on.”
Wardlaw sees that tendency in his signal caller too.
“I want him to learn to be more calm at times,” he said. “He has a level head, but sometimes he gets sped up. He has to realize he always has to have a calm head from play to play.”
Despite that, Wardlaw said he’s pleased with Atkinson’s progress, and happy that “he is right where I figured he would be at this time.”
And with playmakers like Sutton, Petty and Vanderbilt commit Taurean Ferguson to distribute the ball to, Atkinson said he can’t help but to get better.
“We have some very talented receivers,” he said. “Everybody’s my favorite target. I want to spread the wealth. Whoever works for it is going to get the ball.”