ST. PAULS — D.J. Inman’s seen all the lopsided scores and often looks at Fairmont’s gaudy numbers on Twitter.
He understands the prolific season the Golden Tornadoes are having on offense and knows St. Pauls’ secondary will have to bring its best performance of the season Friday night to prevail in their Three Rivers Conference opener.
“All their receivers are fast and highly-skilled,” said Inman, one of the Bulldogs’ hardest hitters at safety. “It’ll take a lot of heart and a lot of speed for us to keep up.”
St. Pauls’ new-look defense under first-year coordinator Mike Paroli will be tested early against one of the 2A ranks’ most talented passing games, a unit that’s already tallied a Robeson County-leading 25 touchdowns.
“Our footwork and stances are important,” Inman said. “Most of their routes and what they do has to be kept in front of us.”
St. Pauls coach Trey Sasser has downplayed the magnitude of the road challenge to his players because he remembers what happened last time a confident, one-loss Bulldogs team went in confident against an Air Raid offense with similar playmakers and a dynamic quarterback.
St. Pauls was smoked, 48-20, last season at Red Springs.
“All the amount of talent Fairmont has at each position is the biggest thing we have to deal with,” Sasser said. “They’re well-coached within their system and they come out knowing what they want to do offensively. They take their shots and if you mistakes, they’ll make you pay.”
Fairmont’s made a number of teams pay with the deep ball this season, averaging 301 yards per game through the air. St. Pauls’ run-heavy scheme could be its biggest weapon however, an opportunity at eating up the clock and keeping the Golden Tornadoes’ four-wide attack featuring instant threats Shemar Barfield and Shyheim Hines off the field.
“If that’s what they do best, we’ll try to keep them from having the football as much as we can,” Sasser said. “I assume they’ll make some plays, it’s just a matter of how many. We’ll just have to limit what we can and play within our system. We can’t blow assignments against them.”
Paroli says the Bulldogs will keep things “vanilla” on defense and try to limit big plays. More than half of Fairmont quarterback Jarrod Neal’s 19 touchdown passes this season have covered at least 30 yards.
By comparison, Fairmont hasn’t seen an offense as potent as the opposition’s either. The Golden Tornadoes’ four wins have come against teams with a combined record of 3-13 and their defense, at times, has given up plays in chunks.
Fans prefer shootouts, but coaches like contests that are well-played defensively and that’s what Fairmont’s Randy Ragland is expecting Friday night. He admits a lot of points could pile up for the visitors if his front seven doesn’t slow down the Bulldogs’ uptempo zone read offense.
Judging by what he’s watched on film, St. Pauls has plenty of options.
“Our defense has gotten better as the season’s progressed, but we haven’t faced an offense as good as theirs either,” Ragland said. “We know everybody’s 0-0 now and what you’ve done leading up to this point doesn’t mean all that much. This is as nervous I’ve been before any game this season.”
Ragland compared St. Pauls’ firepower to what Ashley had in its backfield on Sept. 6. The Eagles found success on the ground but quarterback Chris Kane was stopped short on a two-point conversion attempt in overtime to preserve Fairmont’s 42-40 victory.
“St. Pauls is well-rounded and as good a team as we’ve faced,” Ragland said. “We know it’s going to be a challenge.”
Fairmont used its off week to try and dissect the opposition’s offensive tendencies on film and forget about the first month of the season. While the Golden Tornadoes are already postseason eligible with four wins, the real season begins now, a quest for the program’s third conference championship in four seasons.
Neal’s been the kickstarter, slinging it around to multiple receivers on his way to an all-state level start to his senior season. He’s rarely been sacked and has made played with his legs when pressured.”
“To be honest with you, this is the best offensive line I’ve had in a few years, both size wise and athleticism,” Ragland said. “We’ve got a good group out there. We don’t have to hold a block forever in our offense and when we miss an assignment, Jarrod’s been able to make something happen.
“The important thing we stress is to try and make every play a positive one. If we have to throw one out of bounds, go make the next one.”
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.