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New Rams football coach already feeling at home

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Gerard “Gerry” Pannoni, the new head coach of the Rio Rancho High School football team, is already living in the Northeast Heights — “We bought a house in December,” he said — and has been with next year’s Rams a few times.

The Observer met Pannoni before the Feb. 21 RRHS boys basketball game at Cleveland, where he was already sporting Rams gear and an armful of treats for himself and his grandson after a stop at the concession stand.

“I’m excited,” Pannoni said.” (Feb. 21) was the first day I actually ran a workout; I let the existing coaches run it and I wanted to get a feel for the kids and the facility.”

The Observer had 13 questions for the new coach:

What was your first impression of Rio Rancho High School and the facilities? Where I came from, we don’t have anything like it. … We didn’t have a separate facility for football; everything was enclosed in the school. We did have about five turf fields, so we had plenty of field space. But I like this setup a lot better.

Anything Rio Rancho’s lacking that you want to add? Yeah, I talked to the A.D. about getting some additional equipment.

As head coach, what do you ask of your players? To be committed; to learn what commitment is and then know how to be committed. Just learn how to be everyday guys; know what an everyday guy is and being responsible for themselves, being accountable and that kind of stuff.

What can you tell Rams fans about what you have in mind for the 2020 season? As a head coach, I’m a guy who likes on special teams to take a lot of chances — but they’re calculated chances. I don’t like to punt necessarily; I’ll do (it) if it’s absolutely necessary. As many times as I can get the ball to our offense, I will. So if we score, there’s probably a good probability we’re going to on-side kick a lot. We’re probably going to be a very fast tempo team.

RRPS Athletic Director Larry Chavez told me last season (your team) blocked an astronomical number of kicks, punts, PATs, field goals, etc. Was that uncharacteristic of a Pannoni-coached team? Yeah, we had about 25 blocked kicks. That’s what we practice; if we’re going to return a punt or block an extra point, that’s what we do.

Have you assembled a staff yet? I kept most of the guys that are there — the guys that wanted to stay. So it’s just a matter of adding a few guys. It would be crazy for me to come in and say, ‘All right, all you guys get out.” (Nathaniel Charley and Nate Pino will be back, Pannoni said.)

What’s the biggest change Rams fans will need to get used to? I am my own guy. We are going to take chances. We are going to be aggressive. We are going to go fast. We’re going to try to score a lot of points. Defensively, we’re going to attack you.

Cleveland High football coach Heath Ridenour, left, welcomes the Rams’ new boss, Gerry Pannoni, to town.

I guess go fast. As an offensive guy, my teams have evolved from a wing-T to a flex-bone to every snap in the gun now, but still looking like a flex-bone. A lot of motion, a lot of formations — flip the field all the time. … Our quarterback last year threw for about 3,500 yards and ran for about a thousand; he was the Player of the Year.

What’s your defensive philosophy or style? In today’s game … it’s probably evolved into a 4-4 look a lot. Then into a 4-3, 4-2-5. This year, if you saw a film at the end of the season, you probably saw from our defense one kid in a three-point stance and 10 kids standing up. You had to decide who was coming and who was covering, so it made it difficult. I can’t say we’re gonna come out and do that right away. I’ve got to get a feel for the kids; they’ve got to get a feel for me. We’ve got to work together.

Coaching special teams, how “special “can they be? Special teams turn games around. In my mind, it’s a chance for you to get the ball back, it’s chance for you to get field position, it’s a chance for you to score points. Even on punt returns, we’re going to look funky at times — you’re probably not going to see anybody back. Probably eight out of nine times the punter gets nervous and shanks the ball, so even when you’re not doing anything, it works in your favor.

Will you be getting your players out into the community? Again, I’ve got to get used to the area and see where we can do things. I was real big on taking our kids to the elementary schools and reading to the little kids all the times — kindergartners, first-graders. (Area) churches had places where people could come and get food or clothes… every year at Christmas we would come in and set up Santa’s Room, fill it up with toys, presents. Santa could come in and ask kids what they want and they could go pick it out — it’s all free. We did a lot of clean-up stuff, so, yeah, we’ll be involved in the community.

Do you have a slogan in mind for the 2020 season? Not yet. The thing is, the kids have to take ownership of it, so for me to have a slogan is probably not fair to the kids. (Last year, his team had the slogan “Family,” and each letter stood for something meaningful.)

What’s your NFL team? The Packers and then the Colts. One of the kids from my school (linebacker Oren Burks) was a third-round pick of the Packers two years ago; the other kid plays for the Indianapolis Colts. He only played one year of high school football; he played basketball and went to VCU and played four years there. His name is Mo Alie-Cox — he plays tight end for the Colts. Long story short, he realized the NBA wasn’t for him … He trained, he worked his butt off. He didn’t get drafted, but he signed as a free agent and the last two years he’s played more than 20-some games.”

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