By Gabriel Stovall
JONESBORO, Ga. — There’s a buzz around the campus of Jonesboro high school that’s permeating through the football team, and it’s coming as much from looking backward as it is looking forward.
The Cardinals finished its 2014 season with a 4-7 record — paltry for Jonesboro’s high standards, says offensive coordinator Nate Wardlaw.
It started rough last year as the Cardinals dropped its first four games before winning four of its last seven. That gave Wardlaw hope, given the fact that star quarterback and Clemson commit Zerrick Cooper was out with a torn ACL, an injury he suffered last July.
It’s the way Jonesboro finished — especially offensively — without its top player that is part one of Wardlaw’s encouragement.
Part two is the fact that a healthy Cooper will return this spring, surrounded by a plethora of offensive firepower.
“Coming off of last year, you know, you don’t want to say one person makes a team, but you’ve got a guy coming back in Coop who is a true signal caller,” Wardlaw said. “I think the injury humbled him and let him see how hard it is to get to this point.”
Said Cooper: “It was tough seeing the team go out and fight every Friday night in games and every day in practice and not being able to get out and help. But I was able to take some time out to actually see what we, and what I, needed to do to improve, and I watched film almost daily. It has definitely made me a better player.”
But perhaps the most important piece of the encouragement puzzle came to Wardlaw on Wednesday in Athens.
That’s when the Cardinals’ coaching staff — sans head coach Tim Floyd who had other commitments, and including the head football coach at Jonesboro Middle, one of the high school’s feeder programs — journeyed to the home of the Georgia Bulldogs during an off day from the Dawgs’ spring practice to pick the brains of the Georgia staff.
It was an opportunity that Wardlaw says made an indelible imprint on him and all who made the trip, and that the information received will greatly aid Jonesboro’s preparation for the 2015 season.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Wardlaw said. “But when we got there, at first we were all in one room talking and mingling with the Georgia coaches, then we broke up into an offense and defense type thing. Then it went even smaller into specific positions. And they basically just opened it up and say, ‘Whatever you guys want to talk about, plays, principles, schemes, whatever, we’re up for it.'”
The session was also attended by coaches from Mays, Washington, Westlake and Central Gwinnett high schools, and lasted from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Wardlaw said the highlight for him was the presence of new Bulldogs offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
“I went in with him, and he just really laid so much out for us,” Wardlaw said. “I’m like the coach that never will think I know it all, but I’m always trying to get a grasp on what’s going to be beneficial. We’re already excited about what we’ve got coming back on offense and so what we’ve experienced here, if we bring this back and start sharing some of these tweaks on our boys, man, it’s going to be exciting.”
Wardlaw said the meeting showed the Jonesboro staff how to take what they’re already doing and subtly change a route here or a protection scheme there or an occasional alteration to a particular coverage to help provide different looks without making wholesale changes.
He also declared that he’s seen Jonesboro have “the best offseason I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” and in many ways, the trip to Athens not only helped him see things they could do better, but it showed some spots where the Cardinals were already on the right path.
“As coaches, we’re trying to find a way to simmer ourselves down,” Wardlaw said. “We’re excited. In terms of workouts and just seeing the commitment from everybody and watching everybody get better during the offseason, and given the weapons we’ve got coming back, the sky is the limit for us. It’s not an overconfident thing. But we just believe if we’re locked in we can be a great team.”
Some of those weapons surrounding Cooper this year will be guys such as tailback Montralius Mosley who’s returning after some bouts with concussions. Also Matavian Brooks who played some big minutes as a freshman at running back in relief of Mosley, and also made plays at corner.
James “M.J.” Walker, who was the stud that led Jonesboro to back-to-back state basketball championships this past season, will return a year stronger and more knowledgable at the wideout position. Walker, who has multiple Division I scholarship offers for both basketball and football, recently picked up a football offer from North Carolina.
Rising senior and Kentucky commit Jordan Griffin also returns to hold down the secondary, and 6-foot-4, 300-pound rising senior Jeff Taylor will be an anchor for the interior lines.
Jonesboro will get a chance to test its offseason progress in a major way right off the bat as its August 21 season opener will be against re-tooled, in-town rival Mount Zion, followed by a clash with Fayette County power Sandy Creek the very next week.
And although players like Cooper didn’t accompany the coaching staff on the Athens excursion, it’s easy to tell that he shares in his coaching staff’s enthusiasm regarding the possibilities of the coming year.
“I’m feeling very good, my knee and everything now,” Cooper said. “Like I said, I sat out all last year so I’m definitely looking forward to the season. The big prize for us, of course, is playing for a state championship. I’m very confident we have the ability to make that happen.”