Marietta head coach Scott Burton enters 2012 with a certified superstar at quarterback in Anthony Jennings, and a team loaded with returning starters.
When Burton replaced the legendary Marietta coach James "Friday" Richards before the 2010 season, it was clear he had a strategy. The roster was laden with talented underclassmen, so Burton began playing and developing them together. The young team trembled in 2010, finishing 2-8, but just a year later made it to the second round of the state playoffs. Heading into his third season as head coach, the byproduct of Burton's patience is a battle-tested unit for 2012.
Jennings, much like in 2011, will be expected to do it all on offense for the Blue Devils. The dual-threat quarterback and LSU commit carried the ball for 500 yards and eight touchdowns last season, but it was his arm and decision-making that made him so dangerous. Last season, Jennings threw for 2,187 yards and 19 touchdowns with only four interceptions. Jennings is also fully recovered from an offseason knee surgery that repaired a debilitating knee that Jennings endured throughout the season. According to Burton, the injury reduced Jennings' carries and his willingness to run.
The Blue Devils' starting running back for 2012 is still undetermined, and Burton has struggled to find a replacement for Ro'mello Parker, who graduated last year.
"That is the biggest question we have this offseason," said Burton. "If I gave you a name of who it is going to be I'd be lying. We haven't found that yet."
The Blue Devils need to find a reliable ball carrier to draw defensive pressure away from Jennings in 2012, but the signal-caller will have plenty help on the outside. The Blue Devils return almost every receiver from last year and this experienced core should generate solid numbers in combination with Jennings.
One thing that Burton cannot afford to do in 2012 is to get off to another slow start. The Blue Devils started off 2011 with four straight losses, giving them an 0-4 non-region regular season record. Reclassification moves them into the brand-new Region 4-AAAAAA in 2012, and Marietta will now be in the same region as three of the four teams that accounted for the four losses last year.
South Cobb, Hillgrove and McEachern are undeniably strong opponents, but if Marietta hopes for success in 2012 they absolutely must avoid this sweep again.
Despite their slow start last year, the Blue Devils turned their play around and became a top-tier team by mid-season. They won their next four games and held an undefeated region record after an impressive 35-28 victory over the Lassiter Trojans. The following week they would be matched up with Walton for a chance at the 5-AAAAA region title.
Walton defensive end Koty Allen slammed an already banged up Jennings hard to the turf early in the first quarter of the game. The play resulted in a badly sprained ankle for Jennings, and he had to leave the game completing his only pass attempt for a 40-yard gain. Without Jennings to run the offense, Walton would easily handle the Blue Devils and give them their sole region loss on the season.
Jennings returned to action the following week, and would take the Blue Devils to the second round of the state playoffs. In the first round, Marietta defeated Centennial 48-27. Then, Camden County gave them a 48-7 wallop, and ended the Blue Devils' roller coaster year at 6-6.
Marietta will have eight region games to play in 2012 during their 4-AAAAAA region schedule. In the past they have played four non-region games that were followed by six region games. This season the bigger region leaves room for only two non-region games to start the season. This is the main reason why they cannot afford the slow start. There are more meaningful games in 2012 with the additional region games, but the increased total could in return lessen the damage of an early region loss.
"I haven't really looked at it that way," said Burton "It is always difficult changing regions. Our staff has only been together two seasons and learning a new list of opponents is challenging."
Burton has noticed a common theme in the new region.
"These teams have far less schemes in this region than last year. Most of them run similar offenses so we don't have as many weeks where we are going back and forth with option teams."
Burton is assured his team is ready for their new region and it starts with a healthy Jennings. There is a lot of attention that will be placed on the Blue Devils and Jennings in particular next season, but Burton is not worried.
"They will definitely be coming after Jennings, but he knows this and he wouldn't have it any other way," said Burton.
Jennings has had an active offseason and has been setting the pace in the weight room and practice field.
"He has really been impressive in how he is handling his role as a leader on this team, and all of the outside attention," said Burton. "During the summer when we have off days he is still calling and texting me asking what he and the team can be working on to get better."
Jennings was outstanding last season even amidst an injury substantial enough to require surgery. After hearing how the healthy Jennings has prepared to attack this upcoming season, we should expect phenomenal performances from him this year.
"I would much rather have a target on our backs," said Burton. "We aren't that team yet, but it is nice to be one of the teams people may be marking on their schedules."
Burton and Jennings look to get off to a hot start when they kick off their season Aug. 24 at home with the Newnan Cougars.