Freezy Smalls’ infectious personality and unique (and elaborate) approach to game-day analysis has helped galvanize Pinecrest High School from also-ran to lead dog in North Carolina’s football hierarchy.

Pinecrest High School’s foot­ball pro­gram had a rep­u­ta­tion to shake when Freezy Smalls arrived in the qui­et sub­urb of Southern Pines, North Carolina as the school’s newest defen­sive coor­di­na­tor. The Patriots were hard­ly lack­ing for resources, or par­tic­i­pa­tion num­bers. But they were lack­ing in deep play­off runs.

Head coach Chris Metzger gave Smalls a sim­ple man­date, ​“If you can use it, use it.” In oth­er words, with all the fun tech and data read­i­ly avail­able in today’s mar­ket, if he can apply some­thing for the bet­ter­ment of the pro­gram, Metzger was all for it.

That’s just the kind of green flag any coach loves to hear. And for Smalls, that was like giv­ing him a blank can­vas and a set of brushes.

For the Patriots to get back to where they left off in 2018 — Class 4AA state final­ists for the first time in his­to­ry — some­thing need­ed to change.

They need­ed an over­haul. To heck with the tal­ent, and whether they had it or not. It was all for naught any­way if it wasn’t being applied correctly.

Courtesy of David Sinclair

It start­ed with lit­tle things, like the fur­ni­ture set­up — you’ll find no couch­es in Metzger’s office. (“He thinks that’s lazy, when we should be work­ing.”) And con­tin­ued with the unique ways Smalls presents infor­ma­tion to the kids. 

Pinecrest’s dai­ly sched­ule is a bit quirky. School starts at 8:45 a.m., and gets out at 4 p.m., which isn’t ide­al for after­noon prac­tices. Instead, they prac­tice before school from 6 to 8, often start­ing with spe­cial teams drills ​“to wake them up”.

"Instead, they prac­tice before school from 6 to 8, often start­ing with spe­cial teams drills​“to wake them up."

This is also con­ducive to a more exten­sive learn­ing process off the field. Filmed prac­tices in the morn­ing get feed­back that after­noon. Smalls com­mu­ni­cates the scout­ing reports and installs through Google Classroom, a plat­form teach­ers use to cre­ate, dis­trib­ute and grade school assign­ments, and often chal­lenges his play­ers to draw it up them­selves. Players are also test­ed on their assign­ments on Socrative, anoth­er tool from school class­rooms used to gen­er­ate quizzes.

If they can use it, Pinecrest real­ly does use it. Game-day setups are some­thing of a huge under­tak­ing. Staffers tasked with putting it togeth­er often arrive at the field an hour and 45 min­utes before the oth­er coach­es. Nearly a dozen head­sets accom­pa­ny eight iPads, more than half of which are used in the in-game side­line replay workflow.

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Some fresh­men and sopho­mores who aren’t on var­si­ty yet, but will be impor­tant to the program’s future, get involved in the act. One holds an iPad and does the live tag­ging. Another has anoth­er iPad and charts play calls as the coor­di­na­tors make them. A third records game footage from the press box that gets used in the live feed on the sideline. 

It might as well count as an inde­pen­dent study cred­it. More often than not, Smalls has arrived to find these young play­ers already have every­thing ful­ly assem­bled and ready to go.

Among their oth­er unique game-day setups:

An assis­tant coach tracks in-game ten­den­cies on an spread­sheet from the press box. That infor­ma­tion is then shared with the coach­ing staff at half­time, to help them make nec­es­sary adjustments.

On top of the stan­dard three angles many teams film from (wide, tight, end zone), Pinecrest uses one of the eight iPads to repli­cate an ​“All-22” angle, sim­i­lar to what an NFL Game Pass sub­scrip­tion might give you. The wider, fur­ther-out angle from a tablet cap­tures more of the field than what you could on a typ­i­cal hand­held camera.

In 2019, Smalls plans on hav­ing not one, but two 50-inch tele­vi­sion screens on the side­line, wheeled around in a wag­on, for the play­ers to get imme­di­ate feed­back after leav­ing the field.

“We are real­ly effi­cient on game days,” Smalls said. ​“Coach does a great job of hold­ing our feet to the fire, hold­ing us account­able and mak­ing sure we’re doing our job.”

More and more of the top high school pro­grams across the coun­try have embraced a sim­i­lar to work­flow to what the Patriots do. Why the elab­o­rate set­up? Is more always better? 

Well for one, the game has sped up — not only on the field, but in the press box. The vaunt­ed ​“half­time adjust­ment” is a rel­ic of past gen­er­a­tions. Now it’s about series adjust­ments. If you’re not ana­lyz­ing fast enough, you fall behind quickly.

"Coach does a great job of hold­ing our feet to the fire, hold­ing us account­able and mak­ing sure we’re doing our job."

For Smalls, the rea­sons for all the bells and whis­tles also lies not in what they know, but what they don’t know. In this game of orga­nized chaos, one must always expect the unex­pect­ed. Opponents aren’t fool­ish. Just when you think you’ve fig­ured them out? That’s when they hit you with a surprise.

“A lot of coach­es, we prac­tice and scout all week for what their ten­den­cies are,” Smalls said. ​“But then it’s live, and in the mid­dle of the game, what are those ten­den­cies? Are they some­what along the lines of what we saw, or are they not real­ly rel­e­vant, some­thing total­ly dif­fer­ent? Usually, they are who we think they are. But then they put one or two plays out of their hat that we’ve nev­er seen. It’s usu­al­ly those funky plays that get us.”

Courtesy of David Sinclair

In 2018, the Patriots had no prob­lem mov­ing the ball, accu­mu­lat­ing more than 3,100 yards on the ground and aver­ag­ing 210 rush­ing yards per game. But they were espe­cial­ly dan­ger­ous on defense, deploy­ing a ver­sa­tile style ready for seem­ing­ly any offense they came across. They aver­aged an inter­cep­tion a game (includ­ing a top cor­ner­back lead­ing their con­fer­ence in inter­cep­tions) to go with 19 fum­ble recov­er­ies, 25 sacks and 61 tack­les for loss. Not bad for a team that often finds itself out­sized by its opponents.

2018 was the program’s first time reach­ing a state semi­fi­nal. Prior to that, they had nev­er advanced past the sec­ond round.

“We’re in a con­fer­ence where we face teams that have mul­ti­ple guys with DI offers,” Smalls said. ​“We don’t have as many, but we do have hard-work­ing kids that want to get after it. Using tech­nol­o­gy, these oth­er things that they don’t, it’s real­ly ben­e­fit­ed us in a lot of ways.”

And why are all the bells and whis­tles so nec­es­sary? Some might say there needs to be a hap­py medi­um, but Smalls coun­ters, ​“I think it’s a lot bet­ter than writ­ing it down.”

“It’s nec­es­sary because we have such a young and diverse learn­ing group,” Smalls said. ​“People say this year’s kids are dif­fer­ent than 20 years ago, that it’s a dif­fer­ent time. Well, I’m a firm believ­er in the kids are the same, but the meth­ods of teach­ing and what we allow as adults are different.”

19 Fumble Recoveries / 25 Sacks / 61 Tackles for Loss

These days Smalls finds him­self con­stant­ly field­ing inquiries from the area and beyond. Sometimes it’s at a clin­ic. Other times it’s on his Twitter account, which resem­bles some­thing of a lab­o­ra­to­ry of foot­ball thoughts. They want to know how he gets the most effi­cien­cy out of his tech (it’s the lit­tle things, like his play-nam­ing process when tag­ging clips), and they want to hear about how Pinecrest recal­i­brat­ed them­selves with­out rein­vent­ing themselves.

"Using tech­nol­o­gy…it’s real­ly ben­e­fit­ed us in a lot of ways."

After all, you don’t get 180-plus play­ers in your pro­gram if they aren’t enjoy­ing them­selves out there. It’s not easy, but sig­nif­i­cant advance­ments in video analy­sis tech­nol­o­gy over the last decade have made your aver­age high school foot­ball play­er much more pre­pared — and intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed. As shown here, the com­bi­na­tion of fresh new learn­ing tools and a tech­no­log­i­cal set­up that allows more hands to have a direct out­come on the game, feeds a healthy curios­i­ty. It also brings in kids who’d have nev­er had a rea­son to be involved with foot­ball before.

All this adds up to a spe­cial cul­ture that gal­va­nizes this qui­et town on Friday nights in the fall.

“People come to us, they don’t come to learn about our defense,” Smalls said. ​“They come to us to learn about our cul­ture. How we teach, how we fundraise. Football is real­ly a big pro­gram that we all are a part of in the community.”