Today's interviewee is Johns Creek coach Matt Helmerich, whose team clinched Region 7-AAAAAA for the second consecutive season last week with a 31-16 victory over Alpharetta. Johns Creek is a 10-year-old school with three region titles, an 8-1 record and a No. 6 state ranking. The Gladiators are still seeking their first playoff victory.
Matt Helmerich, Johns Creek head coach
1. You won the region in 2018 without many close games. You graduated your leading passer, rusher and receiver and eight first-team all-region players. What were your expectations this season? "Well, first of all, Max Brosmer and Centennial made us work for every part of that win last year that ended up being for the region championship. [Johns Creek beat Centennial 28-26.] But that team had tremendous depth. Many of these guys played a ton last year, and it's showing up this season. Plus, six or seven of our starters this year were starters on the 2017 team. Consequently, this year's team has a lot of Friday night game experience. As far as expectations, we expect a few things. First was to win the region. The second thing was to win some playoff games and put ourselves in a position to compete for a state title. I think 6A is as wide open as any classification, and we expect to compete for a title."
2. What is the makeup of this team both skill-wise and personality-wise compared to 2018? How is this team different, for better or worse? "Obviously, every team is different. But about halfway through last year, we began to expect to win. It took a little time. This year's team has had that belief since our spring game. Those guys last year played with an edge to them, and they were flat-out nasty at times. This year's team has the innate ability of going from dancing in the locker room during a rain delay to going 110 mph on the field. Every TD, pick six or elite special teams play is like winning the Super Bowl with these guys. They play so dang hard and they love celebrating when they make plays. They're a fun group to coach and watch play. Football should be fun, and this group has a blast."
3. You picked up a pretty good quarterback in the offseason when Ben Whitlock transferred after having a big season at Denmark. What kind of quarterback is Ben, and what impact does his presence have on the team this season? "Ben has been amazing since he walked onto campus. He knew he was going to have to learn a lot in a short amount of time, and he also knew he was going to have to outplay Quinn Teeples, who had a pretty good spring for us after last year's JV starter, Lonnie Ratliff, left for Duluth. His demeanor on and off the field is one of his best assets. He's cool, calm and collected whether things are going great or not. It's hard to replace a four-year starter like Zach Gibson, who's already starting at Akron. But Ben has stepped up and really run our offense well. He'll also be the first to admit it helps when you have the wide receiver corps that we have. Our No. 1 from last year, Giovanni Dyer, is at ETSU. But our next four or five most productive wide receivers from last year were all juniors. So having a bunch of talented senior guys like Dalton Pearson [13 TD receptions] and Yong Min Lee [three-year starter] makes a huge difference."
4. In 2018, you got a tough first-round draw for a No. 1 seed and lost to Harrison 23-20. How do you frame that loss today? Is that experience significant to this year's team, i.e., learning or motivational experience, or is that just old news? "I'm assuming many coaches would probably talk about forgetting the past, accomplishments or defeats. But I bring it up all the dang time. We were pretty good last year and had a chance to do some things in the playoffs. We were up 20-10 at halftime against Harrison. They came out and made some plays, and we came out and made mistakes. You can't do that against a very good team like that. We had a 22-play drive that took the whole fourth quarter that stalled at the 3. To miss the 20-yard field goal and ultimately lose the game was a bitter pill to swallow. But taking care of the small things has been our mantra since January. This staff and these players understand that those small things can make or break us. This program and community are looking forward to seeing our best Gladiator football in the playoffs."
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