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Force quarterback hopes momentum carries over after late surge last year

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Georgia Force's quarterback Darnell Kennedy (9) prepares for the upcoming season during practice at Gary Pirkle Park in Sugar Hill on Thursday. The Georgia Force will host the Cleveland Gladiators for their first game of the season at The Arena At Gwinnett Center on March 12, 2012.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Georgia Force's quarterback Darnell Kennedy (9) prepares for the upcoming season during practice at Gary Pirkle Park in Sugar Hill on Thursday. The Georgia Force will host the Cleveland Gladiators for their first game of the season at The Arena At Gwinnett Center on March 12, 2012.

DULUTH -- In reality, the situation Darnell Kennedy enters the 2012 Arena Football League season in is not all that different from the one he was in this time a year ago.

Instead of sharing the Georgia Force's starting quarterback job with Brett Elliott, the 6-foot, 205-pound signal caller will be co-starter with R.J. Archer when the Force kicks off the season against the Cleveland Gladiators on Monday night at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

"Obviously, Darnell's been with us for a year. So the confidence is there," Force coach Dean Cokinos said. "R.J.'s picked it up, and he's right on part with our two guys from last year. We've been fortunate. It's hard to find good quarterbacks in this league. And two years in a row, we've had two starting quarterbacks. ... We really do have two starting quarterbacks. (Kennedy) may be (the starter) for the first quarter. ... The best guy is going to play."

Still, while the situations may be the same, Kennedy does seem to enter the 2012 season on stronger footing after completing 63 of 11 passes with seven interceptions for 833 yards and 17 touchdowns.

He definitely carries plenty of momentum based on his late-season performance.

After season action in just three of the team's first 15 games -- completing 15 of 23 passes with four interceptions and just two TDs -- Kennedy saved his best for when the Force needed him the most.

With Elliott bruised and struggling, the third-year pro out of Alabama State entered in the second half of Georgia's 51-41 loss to Chicago in Week 16 and rallied the Force for three fourth-quarter touchdowns.

He stayed in the starting lineup and led the Force to road wins at Tampa Bay and Iowa to close out the regular season and help Georgia earn a wild card playoff berth, and then guided the team to a first-round win over Cleveland before falling to eventual Arena Bowl champion Jacksonville in the American Conference finals.

"Now that you say it like that, I guess there was a lot of pressure at the time, but it didn't seem like it," Kennedy said about last year's late-season surge. "I was happy with the opportunity I was given to get on the football field and play and to show what (skills) I was blessed with. I look forward to getting that same opportunity this year.

"I think I need to go out and be just as focused as I was (at the end of) last year -- just stay within the offense and take advantage of every possession we have and just get to the next play."

It was that kind of approach that helped Kennedy keep his focus and patience while he was sitting for much of the regular season.

"In the beginning of the season, I got some playing time," Kennedy recalled. "I didn't play the way I felt I should have played. For whatever reason or whatever went on inside my head, it was good for me to get that playing time. (But) we went on that run and I was able to watch. While I was watching, I learned some things. I was able to practice a lot, too, and I worked on a lot of things in practice."

Eventually, Cokinos began to see gradual improvement in Kennedy's game during those practice sessions, enough to turn to him during the stretch drive.

And he is depending on that kind of leadership to help team with Archer to give the Force the same kind of offensive punch they enjoyed a year ago.

"I think he was confident last year. He's a pro. ... I don't think he's ever changed," Cokinos said of Kennedy. "The same way he ended last year is the same way he entered this year. He went through a spurt where things didn't go well for him early on last year. It didn't break his spirit, and he played well (at the end of the season). So, I expect him to be the guy he is."

Still, after playing so well in the clutch last year, some players might bristle to have to battle for the starting job all over again like Kennedy is having to do with Archer being brought in from Milwaukee.

But the way Kennedy sees it, the situation is much bigger than himself or his second-year colleague out of William and Mary.

"It's more than just a competition between me and R.J.," Kennedy said. "I'm trying to teach him everything I know about the offense and what Coach is expecting, what reads he should be making. ... It's about making the team better. It's not about who's playing and who's not playing. I've got all the confidence in the world about my ability. So, I want him to get every opportunity to beat me out because if he beats me out, he's a real good quarterback."