Jonesboro quarterback Zerrick Cooper has passed for 1,012 yards and six touchdowns while sharing the duties this season. (Staff Photo: Derrick Mahone)
JONESBORO — If Mario Atkinson was a selfish football player, then the Jonesboro two quarterback system would not be in use.
Atkinson, a senior, has sacrificed some of his playing time at quarterback for the better of the Cardinals team. Last season, as the only starter, the then-junior passed for 2,030 yards and 17 touchdowns.
But last spring, Cardinals offensive coordinator Nate Wardlaw approached him about a switch in the offensive philosophy. Seeing the emergence of sophomore Zerrick Cooper, the coach wanted to get him more playing time, but also use Atkinson’s talents in other areas.
With the graduation of key offensive personnel like Cameron Sutton and Taurean Ferguson, Wardlaw wanted to use Atkinson in other positions.
It seems to have worked for the Cardinals, who finished runner-up in Region 4-AAAA, Div. B, and takes on Locust Grove on Friday with a playoff berth on the line.
“It is working for the team,” Atkinson said. “I have a lot of confidence in Cooper, and he is making the team better.”
“They each bring a different style to the game,” Wardlaw said. “Coop is more of a pocket passer, who can speed the game up for us. We are able to play Mario in several positions.”
Heading into Friday’s region play-in game, Atkinson has 1,216 yards of total offense and six touchdowns while Cooper has passed for 1,012 yards and six touchdowns.
“I’m using this year to grow a lot and get used to playing on the varsity level,” Cooper said. “If we keep playing as a team, we are going to go far. I’ve grown a lot as a player since the beginning of the season.”
And one of Cooper’s biggest helpers has been Atkinson, who helped lead the Cardinals to a 9-2 season last year as a first-year starter.
“We sit down a lot and talk about the game,” said Cooper, who is also the starting safety on defense.
If the Cardinals win on Friday, it will be the third straight trip to the Class AAAA playoffs for the program. And much of the team’s success will depend on Cooper and Atkinson.
Last season, Cooper led the JV squad to the county title. He also played on the varsity basketball team that reached the Region 4-AAAA championship game.
So playing in the spotlight is nothing new for Cooper.
“I wasn’t really nervous when coach approached me about being the starting quarterback,” said Cooper, who played at Kendrick Middle before attending Jonesboro. “I’ve grown a lot since this summer when we were doing the passing leagues.”
Both players sport over a 3.0 grade-point average, and Wardlaw said their classroom intellect has been a key in their on- field success.
“They both bring something different to the team and offense,” Wardlaw said. “Mario has been in the system four years, and he knows the offense. Mario can pass and run the ball.”
Atkinson said he has no regrets about playing part-time at two offensive positions.
“No sir, I want to do what I can to help the team win,” Atkinson said.
He is being recruited by several schools as an athlete. Although he doesn’t have any offers yet, Wardlaw said that Jacksonville State, South Alabama, Furman and Appalachian State have shown the most interest.
“I know someone is going to offer,” Wardlaw said. “They are going to get a good player with Mario.”