By Cory Hancock
KENNESAW, Ga. -- The crowd screamed as the ball tumbled to the turf.
“Ball! Ball! Ball!” fans, coaches and players shouted after the Mount Paran Eagles blocked a punt early in Friday’s game against the Mount Pisgah Patriots.
Mount Paran’s Nick Oyola jumped up from the ground, ball in his left hand, right hand firmly fixed vertically against the front of his helmet — the Landshark. Immediately, the rest of the defense imitated Oyola and wildly swarmed him in celebration.
The gesture is a spin-off of Ole Miss’ “Landshark” celebration and mascot. Mount Paran uses it to celebrate turnovers, big plays and vital stops that force the offense into punting. It is the tangible evidence of Mount Paran defensive coordinator Matt Ely’s efforts since his start at the school in 2016 to create a cohesive group of defensive players.
“It’s honestly just a mentality. It’s about swarming to the ball, getting everybody to the ball — we wanna attack on every single down, just playing with a relentless mentality,” senior safety Jake Wilson said. “When we make a big play, we throw the fins up. Coach Ely wants us to throw the fins up, be intense and have fun.”
With the Landshark celebration imitating Ole Miss, Ely also looks to college football coaches for defensive-scheme inspiration. Coaches like Virginia Tech’s Bud Foster, Alabama’s Nick Saban, Clemson’s Brent Venables and former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops are a few on his list.
“Football is very cyclical in terms of what happens at one level trickles to the next level,” Ely said. “If I could be anywhere close to anything like them, that’d be good.”
Those efforts to imitate what coaches are doing at higher levels can be seen in how Mount Paran has performed since Ely arrived. In his first year, the Eagles outscored their opponents 283-89 in the regular season and finished second in their region behind the only team they lost to — Fellowship Christian.
Last year, the Eagles reaching the state semi-final game in the playoffs was a mark of the defense’s tradition of success. The Eagles reached 10 wins for the fourth-straight season and the playoffs for a fifth-straight time. This year, the Eagles sit at 3-2 midway through the season.
“I think last year showed if we put our kids in the best situation, where we can end up,” Ely said. “The expectation for me every year here is to be playing the week of Thanksgiving [in the playoffs].”
This year, the Eagles’ defense has allowed 96 points through five games, and the team sits in fifth place in the Single-A Region 6 standings. The Eagles fell to Fellowship Christian 21-13 prior to their game against Mount Pisgah. In its next matchup, Mount Paran will travel to Mableton, Georgia, to take on the region’s first-place team, Whitefield Academy.
“Those first three games were all running clocks in the second half which I think hurt us a little bit in the Fellowship game,” said Mount Paran head coach Mitch Jordan. “We weren’t used to playing a full game. Hopefully, we’ll be in game shape and understand what it takes to put four quarters together as we go into another tough week with Whitefield.”
The Eagles’ defense has seen a plethora of changes this year, including nine new positions featuring players who are either starting for the first time or have changed positions since last year. Two of the most critical players to the defense’s outlook for the remainder of the season, seniors Wilson and Kyle Terry, have changed positions from last year.
Terry’s position change involved moving from the offense, as a quarterback, to defense, as a safety. Ely said Terry is a phenomenal athlete who has been a natural fit in the defense and has been a blessing to have on that side of the ball.
“I can’t tell you how many times [Terry] and Jake on a spring afternoon or a Saturday, they’ll be up on the field working on their skill development and that kind of thing,” Ely said.
Wilson has started at defensive back during all four years of his time at Mount Paran and made the shift from cornerback to safety this year.
“It’s something that I wanted to do just because, in our region, we play a lot of teams that run the ball,” Wilson said. “I wanted to get more involved, have a bigger responsibility and a leadership role on the defense.
“I’ve embraced it and feel like I’ve done well, and the coaches think I’ve done well too,” Wilson added.
Ely described Wilson as a player who has been indoctrinated into the culture and is vocal at the right time.
“There’s no doubt the kids look up to Jake because they know he’s been a starter ever since they’ve been in high school, and he’s one of those kids who gives you everything he has. He plays hard,” Ely said. “He’s gonna be one of those kids that you definitely miss when he’s gone from a leadership standpoint, the way he plays, how he plays, just kind of all around.”
Wilson’s electric play style showed Friday night during a 52-yard punt return for a touchdown to give Mount Paran a 26-0 lead in the second quarter. That was just one iteration of the Eagles’ potent defensive and special teams performance.
Along with the blocked punt on its first defensive series, the Eagles shut out Mount Pisgah in the first half, slammed a handful of big hits and threw up the Landshark fin throughout its 46-21 victory over the Patriots.
Ely said that some of the players have even discussed the possibility of having a “turnover shark.” Many college football teams have employed various “rewards” for creating a turnover that ranges from chains to thrones to WWE belts — all in part to help foster a culture that brings a team closer together and perform as a unit.
It’s unsure if the turnover shark will be initiated this season, but the Landshark gesture is here to stay. Jordan said he may even get in on the celebration.
“If it’ll make us play better defense and win more games, I’ll do it — whatever it takes,” Jordan said. “I can make the shark signal.”