By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
They say it is good to save the best for last. Martin Luther King head football coach Cortez Allen hopes that is the case when it comes to the AJC.com 50-in-50 series.
The Lions are the final team on this year’s list. Allen hopes they are the final team left standing in Class AAAAA, at the end of the playoffs. In just 11 seasons of football M.L. King has established itself as one of the state’s top programs with a record of 105-29, and four region championships, including the 2012 Region 6AAAAA title.
But Allen, in his first year as head coach, wants more.
“That’s why you work so hard, because ultimately, you are working and competing to win a state championship,” Allen said. “Winning region championships is great, an outstanding accomplishment, especially in a region as tough as ours. But ultimately, it’s about winning state championships, making sure your kids graduate and go to college, and become successful men in life. That’s what this is all about. “
Allen, who was born and bred in DeKalb County (Southwest Dekalb, Class of 1997) was on the inaugural staff at MLK as the defensive coordinator for then-head coach Ken Barrow, who guided the program to one of the most successful starts for a high school in Georgia as the Lions went 25-12 in the first three seasons with appearances in the state quarterfinals and semifinals in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
Allen followed Barrow to Mundy’s Mill in Clayton County, and was the defensive coordinator there for three seasons, before moving over to take the same position at Newton County. After two seasons, he took over there as the Rams’ head coach in 2010.
Allen said he could have returned to MLK as head coach a few years ago, but he thought he needed more experience as a head coach.
“I just didn’t think I was ready,” said Allen, who was given his first job in coaching back in 1999 by long time Athens Academy head coach Mike Gunn. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some great coaches – coach Barrow and coach Gunn – but I knew I needed more experience. The opportunity presented itself again, and now it feels really good to be back. It’s like coming home.”
Allen is extremely familiar with the MLK community and the ability to build a championship program in DeKalb County.
“Coming back to DeKalb County is so special to me. I grew up here, played sports here growing up. It’s made me who I am today,” he said. “The competition in our community, in our region [eight of 10 teams from DeKalb County], it prepares you for winning championships.
“There’s so much talent in the area, too. You look at what DeKalb County is doing in basketball and baseball with my old coach, coach [Marvin] Pruitt at Redan,” Allen said of this year’s Class AAAA baseball champions. “And in track and field too, DeKalb is dominating.
“That will be a big difference for us here, coming from Newton County,” Allen said. “We had some talented players in our starting lineup, but there would be a drop off after that. Here, our starter might grade out at an A, but the second and third guys might grade out as A or A-minus players, too. That means there will always be competition for spots and that’s what you want to have.”
This season the Lions return six starters on offense and seven on defense. The talented nucleus is made up of defensive back Wesley Green, a member of ESPN’s Top 150, defensive end/linebacker Arden Key and quarterback Roland Rivers. Green and Rivers are rising seniors, while Key will be a junior.
Allen said the Lions will still fly around on defense, after giving up just 11 points per game last season. While they averaged 31 points per game on offense, Allen said this year’s team will run the football more, even though Rivers is touted as one of the state’s best passers.
“We’re going to be more balanced,” Allen said. “Roland can throw the ball as well as any kid I’ve seen. He has really taken this offense by the throat and become familiar and comfortable with it, and we will definitely still throw the football. But we’re going to be dedicated to running the ball more because you have to run the ball successfully if you want to win a state championship, and that’s what we’re going to be about here – winning state championships.”
Martin Luther King Lions
2012 record: 11-1, 9-0 in Region 6AAAAA; Lost to Allatoona (20-19) in the second round of the state playoffs
Starters returning: 6 offense; 7 defense
Key returning players: DB Wesley Green (6-0, 180), DE/LB Arden Key (6-5, 215), QB Roland Rivers (6-4, 230)
Key players lost: WR D.J. Polite-Bray (Texas Tech), OL Josh Outlaw (Texas Tech), WR Donald Clark, DB Jeremy Tyler (West Virginia), LB Carlos Garrett, LB McCarthy Mack (Texas Tech)
Schedule: (Scrimmage) TBD vs. Cedar Grove; Aug. 31 vs. Blanche Ely (Pompano Beach, Fla.); Sept. 7 Southwest Dekalb; Sept. 13 Mays; Sept. 20 North Atlanta; Sept. 27 Arabia Mountain; Oct. 11 Dunwoody; Oct. 18 Lakeside-DeKalb; Oct. 25 Stephenson; Nov. 1 Tucker; Nov. 8 Miller Grove.
Outlook: In spite of the coaching change, MLK shouldn’t miss a beat . The return of a solid nucleus of players, led by Green and Rivers, along with a renewed dedication to running the football, will have the Lions right back in the hunt for the title in Region 6AAAAA, one of the toughest in the state.