Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan The Georgia Force Arena Football team which was founded in 2002 prepares for their 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 -- Given the nature of the modern Arena Football League, continuity can be a major asset any of the league's team would covet.
So after ending its return season to the metro Atlanta market a year ago just one step away from the Arena Bowl, there wouldn't seem to be a need for the Georgia Force to make any major changes this season.
Sure enough, there will be quite a few familiar faces in Force uniforms when the 2012 campaign kicks off Monday night against the Cleveland Gladiators at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Of the 24 players on the opening night roster, roughly half of them return from last season, when the Force (11-7) qualified for the AFL Playoffs as a wild card and advanced to the American Conference finals before falling to eventual Arena Bowl champion Jacksonville.
"First of all, you've got to have as much continuity as possible if you're going to build anything worthwhile," Force coach Dean Cokinos said during the team's open house event last week. "Those guys fit our mold. They're tough guys. They're high-character guys. They're team guys. You always want to bring in new players and surround them with those type of guys. It just spreads our message instantly.
"When you've got a bunch of guys you can trust and count on for 18 games, that's really builds the trust factor in really knowing what you're going to get -- that's what I get out of those guys."
While leading passer Brett Elliott and leading receiver Maurice Purify are gone, much of the rest of the offense that averaged 55.9 points per game, many other key components of that offense return.
This time, Darnell Kennedy will share the starting role under center with newcomer R.J. Archer, who threw for 2,353 yards and 27 TDs with the Milwaukee Mustangs last season.
"We have a lot of weapons here," said Kennedy, who completed 63 of 100 passes for 833 yards and 17 TDs, primarily after taking over for Elliott as the primary starter in Week 16 and into the playoffs last year. "Besides the guys we're bringing back, Coach (Cokinos) did a good job this offseason bringing in guys that can play football. ... So, I look for us to have a lot of success this year, especially with the versatility we have in the offense."
Indeed, in addition to having explosive receivers C.J. Johnson (second in the AFL with 3,295 all-purpose yards, 22 total TDs) and Larry Shipp (124 rec., 1,784 yds., 29 TDs) back, Kennedy and Archer will have several new -- and large -- weapons to throw to this season.
The emphasis is on large, with three new receivers standing 6-foot-4 or taller -- rookies Jake Allen, who will likely start the season on injured reserve, and Brandon McRae and veteran Derek Lee.
"That's something we didn't have last year," Cokinos said. "I've got three 6-4 guys coming in to our receiver corps. That was our goal. We wanted to change how we played a little bit on offense. Not that it was a bad deal last year, but it's hard to cover the big receivers. We brought in those three guys. We're really going to count on them to be a big part of our offense."
Cokinos also hopes to further integrate a power running game into the offense with the addition of Mykell Benson to supplement Benji McDowell at fullback.
But it is on defense where the key to Georgia's 2012 fortunes may lie.
While the Force were sixth in the league in interceptions -- led by Tracy Belton's nine, tied for sixth among all AFL defensive backs -- they were only in the middle of the pack in total defense and scoring defense.
So consistency, according to Cokinos, is the No. 1 priority for the defense this season.
"We felt we struggled a little bit on defense at times last year," Cokinos said. "Towards the end of the year, we were a very good defense. Tracy (Belton) and (Robert) Durham bring some continuity to the secondary. You can't replace those two guys in their experience and their ability. That was key to get those two guys back.
"Jerelle Norton is coming back. He was a part-time player (last year) -- a very talented player from Arkansas. We expect him to be a third part of that secondary right now. Up front, (Jeff) Littlejohn and (Jerry) Turner are back, and Benji McDowell. That brings continuity there and experience. The years between those two guys, you can't replace. They're high-level players."
Belton, who also led the team with 101.5 total tackles, agrees that having an experienced nucleus that includes Durham (86.5 tackles), Littlejohn (4.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) and Turner (7.5 TFL, 6 sacks) should give the Force the necessary cohesiveness to reach that goal.
"Basically, everybody's got to be on the same page," Belton said. "Last year, it was (plenty of) ups and downs, and we weren't on the same page. This year going to camp, everybody was on the same page and looking good out there. Everybody's in shape. So, we have to be patient and things will happen for us."
The Force should have no problem making things happen on special teams, where Johnson -- who was fifth in the league in kick return average and shared the AFL lead with 5 returns for TDs -- and kicker Carlos Martinez (AFL-best 146 points, 61.1 field goal pct., second in the league) returning.