By Gabriel Stovall
JONESBORO, Ga. — What a difference a year makes.
Rewind back to Week 5 of the 2015 season, and you’ll recall a Jonesboro Cardinals football team riding high after beating perennial state championship contender Sandy Creek on its own home field.
You’ll see a Clemson-bound quarterback under center, handing off to an eventual 1,000 yard tailback who ran behind a Colorado State commitment on the offensive line with a Kentucky-pledged receiver/defensive back waiting for his chance to touch the ball.
Flip to the other side of the ball, and there’s more of the same — including an undersized, big-hearted defensive tackle with a never ending motor who would soon be headed to Tuskegee.
Region championships, deep playoff runs and talks of dark horse state title hopes surrounded this much ballyhooed Jonesboro squad.
Now push fast forward, and let’s get back to present-day reality.
Gone are Zerrick Cooper, Jeff Taylor, Montralious Mosley and Jordan Griffin. Departed is Kali James and 21 other seniors who made up arguably the best Jonesboro squad in school history. And the results of the departure are glaring.
At this point last year, Jonesboro was 4-1, having just beaten a stout Eastside team. It wouldn’t lose again until it met up with eventual Class AAAA state champion Cartersville and their all-world then-sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Today? It’s not just that Jonesboro’s 0-5. It’s the way it’s looked while getting there. The Cardinals have scored a grand total of nine points all season. Jonesboro’s last three games against Spalding, McEachern and Tucker have been lost by a combined score of 149-0.
It’s the program’s first 0-5 start since 2006 when the Larry Mortonson-coached Cardinals finished 0-10 in Mortonson’s last season.
So what’s with all the whooping and hollering at practice? All the pad popping and talking each other up in between drills? If you closed your eyes to the smattering of undersized kids in pads and turned your head from the Region 4-AAAAAA standings, you’d think it was 2015 all over again.
But it’s not. And coach Nate Wardlaw knows it.
“It’s definitely different when you compare now from back last year,” said Wardlaw, Jonesboro’s offensive coordinator. “We knew we’d be crazy if we said that with everything that we lost last year, we’d just pick back up and go. We’re replacing a lot of great players and a lot of great minds. Football IQ guys.”
Wardlaw is quick to inform you, however, that the most important things about Jonesboro football remain unchanged.
“Coach (Tim) Floyd is the same,” Wardlaw said. “He’s still the same great man. He’s still preaching the same things this year that he was preaching last year. He still treats the team the same. It would be easy to be saying, ‘Ok, this team is different and deserves different,’ but he’s still coaching them like they’re 5-0 instead of 0-5.”
Perhaps, in many ways, it’s the best coaching job he’s done to date. After all, when you replace a guy like Zerrick Cooper — considered one of the best high school quarterbacks Georgia had to offer last year — with a senior quarterback in Jaaliq Brown who, before August, had never played a down of high school football in his life, it only makes sense to temper the expectations.
Still, even with an inexperienced squad full of sophomores, juniors and non-battle tested seniors, — being winless at the midpoint of the season is still a lot to deal with for a guy like senior defensive end Calder Marria.
Marria, the 6-foot-4, 210 pound senior with nine Division I offers — including heavy recruitment from Mississippi State — has found himself learning how to thrive in a new leadership role he didn’t have to worry about during the peak of Jonesboro’s success last season.
“It’s tougher this year,” Marria said. “Being 0-5 is tough whether you’re a freshman or a senior. I mean, last year with 26 seniors, the load was lighter for the younger guys. Now everybody’s gotta step up. It’s a little rough, but I feel like we’ve still got the talent. I feel like we’re gonna get it together before the season is over, definitely.”
And that’s not just player-to-reporter talk. Marria was noticeably vocal during Jonesboro’s Monday afternoon practice, giving encouragement to teammates who did things right, and speaking sharply to the ones who may have been dogging it a bit, or still trying to learn.
It means he’s coming into his own in a team role that Floyd had been trying to prepare him for since the class of 2016 vacated the campus.
“Coach would tell me all the time, I need to be the vision for this team,” Marria said. “Now I see what he’s telling me. Being a senior and a team captain, I take some of the blame for how we’ve played so far. He tells me that when my head is down, the team’s head is down. When my head is up, their heads are up. So I gotta step it up and open my mouth and help us get our acts together. If we just wanted to go 0-10 I would just be quiet, but nobody on this team wants to lose again. I can tell you that.”
He’s not the only Cardinal standout who’s trying to learn how to add the job description of team leader to his resume.
“One guy that sticks out to me is Matavion Brooks,” Wardlaw said. “Through it all, I mean, we’re definitely struggling offensively, but Matavion’s been that one guy that kept that killer mindset. When things aren’t going well for us, I see him out there picking guys up.”
Said Brooks: “Last year, I wouldn’t say I sat back, but we had leaders to take control. I didn’t have to make anybody do things. But now I find myself having to tell my friends on the team when they’re wrong. Everybody’s looking at me expecting me to make plays. It’s kind of different with everybody looking at my mouth now.”
Both Brooks and Marria agree on the main thing that hasn’t changed in a season full of seismic shifts that have thrown back a proud program’s progress — L.O.B.
The acronym stands for “Love Our Brothers.” It was a movement started among the 2015 squad, when they changed their Twitter handles to reflect it. Even coach Floyd got in on it. But with the team facing its lowest point in 10 years, Marria said L.O.B. is so much more than a trendy catchphrase. .
“It’s easy to say you love your brother when you’re 11-2 and going to the state playoffs and winning region championships and a bunch of guys are going to the next level,” he said. “It’s hard to say it when you’re 0-5. Back against the wall. It helps you see who’s really there for you. There’s definitely a deeper meaning to L.O.B. this year.”
Brooks concurred, noting that it’s hard not to hear the negativity from some of the same people who were singing Jonesboro’s praises this time last year.
“You hear (the negativity) from other players on other teams, people at school, teachers, parents, everybody,” Brooks said. “But it’s made us stronger. People were saying the only reason why we got along last year is because we were winning. But this year we’re not winning, and we still manage to be brothers.”
Yet, with a season that seems to have more intangible worth than that which you can measure on a stats sheet or win-loss column, please don’t think Jonesboro’s already thrown in the towel for 2016.
Wardlaw said he still sees fight in this group of guys. He still sees the kind of want-to that usually translates to wins after while. Jonesboro has a bye week this Friday before traveling to region foe Stephenson on September 30. And Wardlaw expects the team to go there with confidence.
“We’re behind 0-2 in the region and we’ve lost these games, but we feel like the bye week has come at a good time. If we can still put some pieces together and guys can take their concentration to another level, there’s not a game on the rest of the schedule we can’t compete in and even win,” he said.
So put the plans of looking ahead to 2017 on the backburner for now.
“Nah, we’re not looking to the future yet,” Wardlaw said. “There’s still some season yet to be salvaged right now where we are.”