Lance Clark excitedly grabs a clipboard that was sitting next to his computer to drive home his point when asked about the importance of being adaptable as a coach.
"Right now we have seven depth charts depending on personnel, situation, and that week's scheme,” said Clark, Marion's first-year football coach. “I think it's human nature to think you have all the answers, but being able to change when it's clear that what you're doing isn't the best method is crucial in football and in life.”
Clark has proven adaptable in his football life. He's coordinated offense and defense in his career in Alabama before serving as Class 5A power Little Rock Christian's defensive coordinator and associate head coach the past three seasons. The Warriors recorded a 35-5 record with Clark as DC, and his swarming, aggressive defenses limited opponents to three touchdowns or fewer 23 times. Little Rock Christian allowed just seven second-half points to mighty Pulaski Academy in the 2018 Class 5A title game to earn the school's first state championship. His Warriors scored three defensive touchdowns in October 2019 when they pounced PA again.
Clark's next adjustment calls for crafting Marion into a perennial contender “like Greenwood, Benton, and Lake Hamilton,” said Clark. “When my wife (Lena) and I decided to move here, we planned on staying for a long time. I've been to a lot of places and we can have the same type of success here that we had there.”
The first year of a coaching transition can be difficult, but that doesn't mean it has to be. Marion's previous two coaches produced wildly different results in their first seasons. Jed Davis's initial Marion team finished 1-10 in 2014 as the Patriots shifted from Marion's all-time winningest coach Mark Uhiren's Diamond T offense to Davis's signature Spread.
When Keith Houston succeeded Davis in 2018, Houston's first team won eight games, finished as conference runners-up, and earned a first-round playoff bye. Houston exited Marion in June after his teams recorded an 18-13 record in three seasons.
“What you've seen here has been some really good years – six, seven or eight wins -- but then you're right back to two or three,” said Clark. “We want to stop the roller coaster and have more consistent results year in and year out.”
The 2020 Patriots rode the roller coaster, like many teams during the Covid-19 pandemic. Marion snapped a four-game losing streak to open the season by topping eventual 6A East conference champion and state semifinalist Sylvan Hills in October. A Homecoming victory over Sheridan clinched the No. 6 playoff seed for the Pats. In November, Marion posted its first playoff win since 2015 in a 55-34 romp over talented Van Buren, advancing to the semifinals for just the second time in school history and the first time since 2006.
Patriot Stadium has undergone wholesale changes the past few years, replacing the turf, scoreboard, and press boxes. Clark announced in August theme nights for home games, including youth football night, and an opportunity for the younger Marion teams to sit in on pregame meetings with the varsity team.
“We want to create the same excitement in the community for our program that we have as coaches,” said Clark. “We want to recognize the next generation of Marion football players.”
For the second season in a row, Marion faces a daunting non-conference schedule featuring Class 5A juggernaut Wynne, three-time defending Class 7A state champion Bryant and Joe T. Robinson, which boasts the top offensive line in Class 4A and a pair of Division 1 recruits. Marion needs to finish in the top six of eight teams in the 6A East to extend its school-record run of playoff appearances to 17 seasons.
Senior quarterback Ben Gerrard has started just one varsity game in his career, but that doesn't mean he's without experience. He triggered the 3-0 junior varsity team as a sophomore and played extensive varsity snaps a season ago, starting the Bryant game. Gerrard, also a standout baseball player, executed the offense well in the off-season and “can make every throw we need him to make,” said Clark. “He's starting to take ownership of the offense. We want Ben to own the line of scrimmage more this year than he's ever done before.” Sophomore Ashton Gray led the 3-3 junior high last season and “has all the tools to be the QB of the future,” said Clark.
Senior tailback Cam Anderson paced the 2020 Patriots with 645 yards rushing and five touchdowns to earn all-conference honors before turning in an “incredible off-season,” said Clark. “He's our every-down back, and he's locked in.” Anderson, who clocked 4.6 speed, deadlifts 480 pounds, and squats 460 pounds, should absorb between 15 and 20 touches per week. Junior defensive stalwart Brian Weatherspoon spells Anderson at times, particularly in short-yardage situations. “He's a talented kid, the type of player we need to play more snaps,” said Clark.
Junior all-conference receiver Zion Burnside ranked second a season ago in receptions (34), receiving yardage (267), and receiving TDs (one). Burnside is “our most electric player,” said Clark. “We'll devise ways to put the ball in his hands in space as much as possible.” Junior outside receiver Donnie Cheers, Jr. could prove Marion's top deep threat. Cheers caught 12 passes in 2020 for 156 yards and a TD. “I've only seen a few receivers in the past who tempos the ball in the air like Donnie can,” said Clark. “He's able to adjust to the ball in the air like I've only seen big-leaguers do in the past.”
Don’t be surprised to see senior Kaleb Catt line up at both receiver slots, as well as H-back in short-yardage situations. Catt, also a baseball standout, snagged 15 passes last fall for 222 yards (15 yards per reception) and a TD, and “those numbers will improve because he's such a multiple player,” said Clark. “He's committed, works hard, and doesn't complain. He can block, catch and he's strong for his size.” Sophomore Matt Kearney impressed in the off-summer at slot receiver. “He's a tough joker,” said Clark. “He's never hurt for confidence.” Look for defensive studs Donavin Brewer, Carter Waldo, and Columbus London to help at receiver.
“We have seven guys in the offensive line that we feel good about playing, we just have to find the right combination,” said Clark. “That's the position group that made the biggest jump this off-season.” Senior center Hudson Dulli started every game a season ago at center and “he'll anchor the whole thing in the middle,” said the coach. “He's had an excellent start to camp.” Seniors Travis Stafford and C.J. Morgan and juniors Dawson Miller, Newt Reed, and Garrett Dickerson and sophomore Carter Benton compete for vacancies at tackle and guard, competition that could last until into September. “I feel really good about the ability of those guys. They're getting more physical all the time,” said Clark. “It's just about finding the proper combination now.”
Senior Dylan Pieri should handle the kicking and punting duties for a fourth season. Kohl's Kicking Academy, arguably the top kicking camp in the nation, ranks Pieri No. 73 in the country among senior kickers. The standout soccer player made all 23 extra-point attempts a season ago and he connected on nine of 12 field goal attempts with a school-record 45-yard field goal. Pieri averaged 52 yards per kickoff and 34 yards per punt, with eight resting inside the 20-yard line. “He's extremely consistent inside the 30 and he's very reliable around 40,” said Clark. “He's had an excellent summer.”
Defensive line could prove the team's deepest, most productive position group, said Clark. Senior defensive end Kyjuan Rodgers “has a chance to be as dominant a player as I've coached,” said Clark.
“We need more consistency from him, but he's 6-4, 250 and knows how to get off the ball. He has an edge and when he decides he's going to play then he's tough to handle.” Rodgers recorded 34 tackles last season, including eight behind the line of scrimmage. Senior Trent Knighten plays end and noseguard in Clark's 3-4 scheme. Knighten stacked nine stops a season ago in limited reps. Senior Tyron Smith impressed in summer workouts. Seniors Kendarius Mitchell and Jeremiah Nichols, juniors Daxton Davis and Antanius Tiggs, and sophomore Dewayne Williams compete for reps upfront. Williams earned Scout Player of the Week the second week of August.
Clark favors versatile players at linebacker, where seniors Donte Moore and Donavin Brewer and junior Carter Waldo are returning starters. “Those three always bring consistent energy and effort,” said Clark. “It could be our smartest group. It's a really good bunch.” Waldo ranked second last season on the Marion tackle chart with 57 stops. Brewer, who emerged in August as a team leader, racked up 42 stops while Moore stacked 18 stops. Moore and Brewer recorded two sacks apiece. Senior Danjuan Davis emerged in August workouts as a playmaking 'backer. Sophomore Cameron Brown earned first-team reps to open fall camp. Senior Zyon Parnell and Weatherspoon compete at the Star position (hybrid linebacker/defensive back). Parnell, who did not play last year, “has really come along and been consistent,” said Clark. “Brian has all the ability to be a good Star.” Sophomore Martavian Banks develops at Star.
Junior free safety Jakobe Smith “is a ball-hawk,” said Clark. “He's a guy who could turn the corner this year.” Smith started every game last season in the secondary, including eight at cornerback. Sophomore Amari Lee “has a chance to be as good a safety in the state by the time he's a senior,” said Clark. “He has the 'it' as far as how he approaches the game.” Senior Columbus London started the final nine games of 2020 at cornerback, where he intercepted a crucial pass against Sheridan. Sophomores Kendall Brister and Arviance Leflore compete at the opposite cornerback. Look for Cheers, Burnside, and Anderson to play secondary on crucial downs.