When you hire an all-time great Atlanta Falcons wide receiver as your head coach, things change. Teams start to circle your game on the schedule. Players rally around the opportunity to say they beat you. The opposing crowd chants a little louder.
In Terance Mathis’ first year as the head coach of the Pinecrest Paladins, he realized all of that. In fact, he realized a lot more than that.
“It was a learning year,” Mathis said. “We inherited each other. We went 0-10, but you couldn’t tell these guys it was a wasted season. I think we learned about each other. I think we grew together.”
You could feel the hype around the Paladins football team grow exponentially last season. But the hype didn’t result in wins. Pinecrest failed to win a game in regulation – although the Paladins did get a victory over South via forfeit – but it was a season full of adjustments.
Pinecrest veered away from its patented wildcat style of offense to a new pro-style that Mathis installed. They had a large roster turnover from the season before, and the returning players knew how to play one specific style—their old one. It was a complete reset of the program at a time when eyeballs all over the state were watching.
As the season progressed, the improvement in the team was clear to see. After suffering some huge losses in the beginning of the season, their last two games both ended with one-score deficits.
Over the offseason, Mathis brought on former NFL player and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis to assist in the team’s reshaping. Lewis was the defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, and he has already made his experience felt.
“You can feel his affect right away,” Mathis said, “on campus, with the players. You can feel it.”
Pinecrest undoubtedly has the most high-profile coaching staff, but former NFL players can’t win football games by themselves.
The new offense has a new face this season. After playing the majority of games as only a safety last year, Ryan DiFazio took over at quarterback late in the season. In the last two games of the year, DiFazio threw for over 500 yards and had seven all purpose touchdowns.
“He’s a high IQ young man. I love it,” said Mathis. “It’s almost like he’s in my head, and it’s fun to watch him throw the ball around and operate our offense.”
DiFazio adds another level to their offense. He can throw the ball, but his background in the triple option offense has led to DiFazio becoming a dual-threat quarterback. His two starts last year were the only two games the Paladins eclipsed 20 points. With an entire off season to focus on improving at quarterback and learning the new scheme, the low-scoring nature of Pinecrest’s 2017 campaign looks to be reversed.
“It was definitely a change at first especially after being used to the triple option,” said DiFazio. “Now that we’ve gotten used to it and worked on it this past year, we definitely have it under our belts now.”
Defensively, both Mathis and Lewis have been impressed with senior Stone Brown. Brown commands the defensive line, a group crucial to success in the run-heavy nature of Class A.
“He’s our do-all, be-all,” said Mathis. “The first time I met Stone I saw him and I asked ‘who’s that guy that looks like a superhero?’ And that’s what he’s been for us: a superhero.”
Pinecrest’s defense allowed 35 or more points six times last season, but the coaching staff seems confident that their defense is adapting just as quickly as their offense.
The 2018 season is no longer a reset year for Pinecrest. They have a large group of seniors who are ready to forget about their winless season and start to rebrand themselves to match their high-caliber coaching staff.