Coach: Todd Donohoe (third season, 6-14; eighth overall, 19-47)
Last season: 3-7
Colors: Red, white and blue
Stadium: Freedom Stadium, 17410 Commerce Park Blvd., Tampa
Playoff history: 2006, 2009
Last appearance: Lost 17-7 to Countryside
Aug. 29 at King, 7:30
Sept. 5 vs. Middleton, 7:30
Sept. 12 at Wharton, 7:30
Sept. 19 at Gaither, 7:30
Sept. 26 vs. Strawberry Crest, 7:30
Oct. 2 at Sickles, 7
Oct. 17 vs. Tampa Bay Tech, 7:30
Oct. 24 vs. Steinbrenner, 7:30
Oct. 31 at Wiregrass Ranch, 7:30
Nov. 7 vs. Riverview, 7:30
Mark your calendar
Freedom at Wharton, Sept. 12: The Patriots open with winnable games against King and Middleton. And if the are indeed an improved team, they can walk out of the Week 3 New Tampa rivalry with a winning record, which would be huge considering their recent history against the Wildcats, who they haven’t beaten since 2009. That game will also lead into the district opener against Gaither. And by then we should know if Freedom will be a contender for one of the two playoff spots. Freedom has been .500 following Week 3 just once since 2006, so a good start could help in changing the team’s fortunes.
Optimism central: You won’t find too many coaches more optimistic year-to-year than Todd Donohoe. While he says getting Freedom turned around has been in a lot of ways harder than when he started the Strawberry Crest program, he truly believes the Patriots are turning the corner. He has added a handful of coaches to the staff and now has 17, including a run game coordinator and two line coaches. And he thinks heading into his third season, after years of coaching changes, the players have found a comfort and confidence level with the staff. The Patriots lost to Steinbrenner 17-15, then won their next two games to close out 2013 and head into 2014 on a roll.
Key loss: Freedom was stung by the transfer of Miami commitment and defensive standout Scott Patchan to IMG. Who replaces him? Everyone, Donohoe says. “Obviously no one can replace Scott, he’s a special player. We’re going to be more of a team-oriented type of defense. Scott was a special individual player.”
Cheery O: The Patriots have not been able to muster much offense the past few seasons, and they will have to change with an improved offensive line blocking for new quarterback Nasir Core and running backs Trent Burnett, Carlos Rodicio and Calvin Bido-Vega. The Patriots rushed for 373 yards and have averaged 2.2 and 2.7 yards a carry the past two seasons. “We should be better this year,’’ Donohoe said.
Reinforcements: Freedom’s junior varsity team only lost one game last season (by a 7-6 score) and allowed just two touchdowns, and Donohoe is expecting some of that team’s better players to make contributions this year, like sophomore linebackers Chris Clapham and Kalijahe Spann.
Air control: The Patriots’ strength will be their defense, which kept them in some games last season, allowing fewer than 20 points in games against Middleton, Wharton, Gaither, Steinbrenner, Wiregrass Ranch and Riverview. The defensive line is young, but the linebackers are good and the defensive backs are some of most underrated and unappreciated players around, Donohoe said.
WR/ATH Sayff Saed, Sr.: One of Freedom’s best all-around players, Saed (6-0, 175) spent the summer with Team Tampa and also helped the Patriots to a 7-on-7 title. He had seven catches last year and could also see some action at quarterback.
WR Johnny Rodicio, Sr.: A slot receiver with good hands and speed, Rodicio (5-8, 160) is another player who can help out at multiple positions on offense.
T Cody Cox, Sr.: At 6-5, 255 pounds, Cox is one of the Patriots’ returning starters on offense, and a key if Freedom is going to get its run game in gear.
LB Taurus Rowell, Sr.: Donohoe really likes his linebackers, and Rowell is one of the better ones. He is the team’s top returning tackler with 50.
LB Lee Carabali, Sr.: The 5-11, 200-pounder was second on the team with 4.5 sacks last year, and will be one of those helping to fill the hole left by Patchan.
DB Aaron Cox, Sr.: He had two interceptions and five passes broken up, and Donohoe said he is one of the best he’s ever coached. Donohoe said Cox compares to Nate Godwin, now at USF, and Nate Ferguson, now at Sickles.
DB Isaiah Smith, Jr: Smith played in every game last season and should emerge this season as one of the top backs around.
RB Carlos Rodicio, So.: This quick and elusive back also packs a punch.
RB: Trent Burnett, So.: He spent a little time on varsity last season but could emerge as the primary ball carrier.
LB/DB/QB Derrio Kelly, Sr.: No matter where he plays him, Donohoe is expecting big contributions from Kelly, who had 42 tackles last season.
“We’ve definitely turned the corner. The stability, the structure and the discipline is there now. We had a good summer. — Donohoe