Return of Arena football in Gwinnett goes back to basics



For those fans wanting to know what to expect from the Georgia Force in its return to the Arena at Gwinnett Center for the first time in three years, the answer is not complicated.

After a 7-9 season as the Alabama Vipers last season, coach Dean Cokinos says his approach to building his team in 2011 will be quite simple.

Just go back to the basics.

“I think this game is built on quarterback play and defensive line, in my opinion,” Cokinos said. “I come from the old Nashville Kats/Georgia Force mentality. You’re willing to pass rush and (get good) quarterback play. We hope to be really strong up front on defense.”

To that end, Cokinos has made a few offseason moves to address both areas in putting together this year’s roster, which debuts today at 4 p.m. against the Tulsa Talons at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

On the defensive side, he hopes to bolster a pass rush that ranked No. 14 in the AFL in sacks by bringing in veteran linemen Jeff Littlejohn from the Jacksonville Sharks and Jerry Turner from the Spokane Shock.

Littlejohn ranked tied for eighth in the league last season with 81⁄2 tackles for loss and tied for 16th with five sacks.

Turner was also among a group of linemen with five sacks a year ago, and is a former Lineman of the Year in afl2 (in 2006).

For his part, the 6-foot-3, 265-pound 10-year veteran out of Tennessee Tech is looking forward to fitting into a well-seasoned group of defensive linemen that also includes former Georgia Bulldog Will Thompson, as well as Rodney Hardaway, who came over with Cokinos from Alabama.

“Right now, most of the people have played,” said Turner, who finished last season with 33 total tackles, including 61⁄2 for loss, in helping Spokane to last year’s Arena Bowl title. “So, we’re all pretty seasoned. The coach don’t worry about us showing up on (game) days. We pretty much know the game, which gives us an advantage. Later on, when teams are starting to jell, we’ll already be in that form.”

An improved pass rush could also reap benefits in the secondary, where defensive back Eric Crosby returns to lead the way after ranking 10th in the AFL with six interceptions and 13th with 6.3 tackles per game with the Vipers.

As to the other key area, quarterback, Cokinos couldn’t be more pleased.

“Right now, Brett Elliott is going to get the start,” Cokinos said. “We have more than a capable back-up in Darnell Kennedy. So, I feel right now, we’ve got two starting quarterbacks.”

Elliott completed 249 of 432 passes for 2,674 yards and 59 TDs on 17 interceptions in 13 games with the Utah Blaze last season.

And the former NCAA Division III Player of the Year from his days at Linfield College is pleased with what he’s seen of the Force offense during training camp.

“Coach Cokinos has done a great job of bringing in good people,” Elliott said. “It’s really refreshing to be around people you like. You don’t always get that at this level.”

Elliott and Kennedy will have plenty of weapons to throw to, including Alabama’s leading receiver from a year ago, C.J. Johnson, who ranked third in the AFL with 2,805 all-purpose yards and pulled in 108 receptions for 1,246 yards and 21 TDs.

The addition of former Nebraska standout Maurice Purify, who played five games with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009, should also bolster the receiver corps.

The job of protecting Elliott and Kennedy falls to a large group of linemen in every sense of the word, with six different linemen weighing more than 300 pounds, including former Ole Miss Rebel Daverin Geralds (6-3, 320), plus Dion Small (6-3, 310), Sean Allen (6-3, 320) and John Ruberton (6-2, 305), a native of nearby Cobb County who will also see time as a fullback and longsnapper.

Special teams may be the Force’s biggest strength this season, with the return of several familiar faces.

The most familiar is Carlos Martinez, one of the mainstays with the Force in the old AFL who led the league last year with 13 field goals for the Orlando Predators last year.

The return of Johnson, who was fourth in the league with 1,449 return years, including 3 TDs, should make the Force quite dangerous when returning kicks.

Of course, nobody really knows what to expect until the ball is teed up, but Cokinos is eager to find out just what he’s got.

“I’m very happy,” Cokinos said. “We brought in a high number of talented players, and it’s been a really competitive camp. There were some really difficult cuts to make.

“There are so many variables — injuries, guys staying with it, guys leaving to go to other leagues. … We look great on paper, but the game’s not played on paper. … Right now, I feel really good about where we’re going to be. If we can keep this team together and healthy for a long time, I think we’ll be really good.”

Force fans hope he’s right, though for now, they will likely be happy the game is back after a two-year hiatus.

Thompson, a player with the former Force franchise who split last season between Milwaukee and Chicago, is definitely glad to be back.

“I was looking forward to the Force coming back,” Thompson said. “I did like the chance to come back and play at home. When I finally got the call from (Cokinos), it was a great feeling.”