Rushil Patel

Plano East rising senior Rushil Patel led the Panthers in receiving yardage last season as a junior.


There's plenty that goes into transitioning to a new job during the offseason, but Tony Benedetto was thankful for how Plano ISD handled bringing him on board to lead the Plano East football team.

The former Woodrow Wilson head coach was announced as the Panthers' next head coach on Jan. 26, affording him plenty of time to lay the groundwork for the spring phase of East's offseason. In the time since, Benedetto is pleased with how the Panthers have handled the change.

"They've responded well. The guys work hard and they want to win," Benedetto said. "Those seniors haven't been part of a winning season, so it's about changing that mindset that you have to take a daily approach to being successful, and I feel like they've done that."

The eighth head coach in program history, Benedetto made it clear that he wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel upon his arrival. He said his first spring at East to acclimate his players to things like the tempo of practice, learning how his players operate and what kind of coaching they respond.

"The spring really helps you come together as a team," Benedetto said. "It wouldn't be as valuable if we'd have been here for five years and we all knew each other, but we really need to know who's aggressive, who tackles well, who plays well with pads on, what plays can we run. It's a big credit to Plano ISD for making this hire when they did and not super late to where you're not able to do this stuff."

Benedetto admitted there was an occasional malaise during days when the hot weather kicked in, but recalled one of the highlight moments from the Panthers' spring when the coaching staff used that lethargy as an opportunity to develop leadership.

"One of the most encouraging things was during a slower day, I called the defense up and a couple of the players took over," Benedetto said. "They spoke to the team and that increased their intensity for the rest of the practice."

Benedetto saw his approach pay dividends over three seasons at Wilson. After going 3-7 in their first year under Benedetto in 2019, the Wildcats produced a combined record of 15-6 over the next two seasons and qualified for the playoffs both years.

As is common with any head coaching change, some of the assistant coaches who helped steer that ship alongside Benedetto have made the move to East. That includes the Panthers' new offensive coordinator, David Joeckel, as well as defensive coordinator Matthew Clay.

From a personnel standpoint, Benedetto mentioned an early emphasis on developing East's offensive and defensive lines and building depth by figuring out which players could potentially see time on both sides of the ball if need be.

For the past two seasons, East centered much of its offense around the superlative talents of running back Ismail Mahdi, who accounted for half of the Panthers' offensive touchdowns scored in 2021. With the speedster graduated and off to play for Houston Baptist, East is looking at two potential replacements in the backfield.

One has been something of a diamond in the rough with rising senior Daniel Fayombo turning heads as what Benedetto described as "the best athlete on the team."

"We found [Fayombo] in P.E. class," Benedetto said. "... He ran a 4.5, he squatted 415 despite never lifting weights before, he benches 225, he broad jumps over 10 feet. He's pretty special for having not worn a helmet since the fifth grade. He's still learning how to play football and he'll be getting a lot of carries for us."

The Panthers will also look to rising senior Austin Wesley, who played linebacker as a junior, to help shoulder the load with the running game.

East has two options vying for the starting job behind center with rising junior Drew Devillier, a TCU baseball commit, and rising senior Elijah Prince competing at quarterback after seeing time last season. Regardless of who emerges as the starter, Benedetto expects both to be on the field in some capacity.

There's proven experience out wide with Rushil Patel entering his third season as a starter at wide receiver — he led the Panthers in that area with 33 catches for 422 yards and two touchdowns last season — and Benedetto lauded the leadership and play up front from rising senior Gavin Speight, who started a majority of East's games at center in 2021.

Defensively, the Panthers have been pleased with the progress at linebacker from rising senior Chiagozie Oliver, an all-district performer as a junior, while Benedetto sees Division I potential in senior OK Igwe, who's moving from defensive end to middle linebacker.

That could also be the case for rising junior Chima Chineke, one of three returning starters on the defensive line. He received an offer from Texas Tech in March and will be joined up front by rising junior Aidan Miller, a state qualifier in wrestling, and rising junior Brayden Bergman, an all-district pick on the gridiron who doubles as a standout on East's baseball team.

Rising junior Desmond Smith brings experience to the secondary, while Benedetto mentioned four seniors vying for two starting spots at cornerback.

As the Panthers continue to navigate their offseason, they are scheduled to begin summer workouts on Monday with an extra hour of allotted skill time — vital for the East coaches to help teach offense and defense. The program also has a 7-on-7 state qualifier appearance in Arlington lined up for June 10 and an invitation to compete in a showcase hosted by SMU on June 16 that includes 7-on-7 and a lineman challenge.

"You don't want to lose momentum in the summer, but that can be hard since people often go their separate ways in the summer with vacations and what not. We'll be doing what we can to keep momentum," Benedetto said.

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter. Email him with sports story suggestions at

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