The 2018 season was simply electric for Dutch Fork High School, even by the Irmo, South Carolina stalwart’s own high standard.
Ranked ninth nationally and with a third straight state title, the Silver Foxes’ 771 points scored during the season is believed to be a state record. Through their first five games, they were the country’s highest-scoring team with an average of 64 points. On the year, they surrendered just 113 points — most of them with the game already in hand. Opponents collectively averaged less than three yards per rush. All this, with less than a dozen blitzes called over the entire fall.
The Class 5A title game, hanging nearly 60 points on a T.L. Hanna squad boasting a five-star force in All-American Zacch Pickens, was arguably its masterstroke. Defensive coordinator Nick Pelham called a beautiful game, as the Foxes forced and recovered five fumbles, two of them for scoop-and-scores, in what was a 59 – 20 rout at hallowed Williams-Brice Stadium.
So naturally, coming off a three-peat punctuated with a masterful campaign that may never be replicated, this is the perfect time for the coaching staff to shake things up.
Really? If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway?
“Oh goodness, you always have to change,” says defensive coordinator Nick Pelham, the architect of that suffocating defense. “You’ve always got to add. There’s always ways to get better. There’s certain weak points in our defense that I worry about. They haven’t been exploited too badly yet, but as soon as they do get exploited, we’ve got to have something we can go to.”
Let’s allow him to explain.
As a history teacher for the past two decades, Pelham has seen a transformation in how students soak up their lesson plans. In recent years, he’s become a believer in the “flipped classroom” technique, a method that’s been practiced on college campuses for years but has picked up steam with the explosion of online degrees being offered.
Here’s how it works — the lecture is recorded beforehand so the classroom time can be used for activities and lecture assessments. Teachers using this method often find their students come into class more guided, ready with questions and engaged feedback.
Pelham has introduced that approach to his football team for 2019, first testing it out during spring practices when introducing a third base coverage to accompany their über-deceptive cover 2 and cover 3 schemes. Pelham will record himself breaking down the next day’s installment on a whiteboard, in clips that typically last no more than 5 – 10 minutes, then uploads the footage for everyone to watch as many times as they need to.
Pelham thinks the next evolution in this rapidly-evolving climate of data and technology is going to be on the kids themselves. So why not feed this appetite?
“What I’ve noticed with the advent of Hudl, kids are information seekers, whether it’s good or bad,” Pelham said. “The more stuff we give them with football, the more they’re seeking that information. The kids are more prepared now than they were 10 years ago. They don’t need the DVD player at home.
“Film study has gotten so much more in-depth, and the kids are so much better with Hudl and sorting plays than I am. The next evolution is how can we tap into the information-seeking of players, how can they start break down process, finding out about opponents. A lot of kids are looking for something to be a part of — this is way better than being on Twitter or TV.”
It’s too early to tell how this all translates on the field, though the Foxes’ first live action of the 2019 season, a nationally-televised showdown with Charlotte’s Mallard Creek, was a promising start. In a game that was called with a 27 – 27 tie after three lightning days, there were moments of brilliance, such as this double-reverse touchdown pass to open things up …
… And this one-handed back pylon snag from Tennessee-bound speed demon Jalin Hyatt, he of the 4.31 wheels:
Defensively, the early returns on Pelham’s approach are very promising. Pelham has gotten good feedback from his players, and even better feedback from his own coaching staff.
“It was one of those things where I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner,” Pelham said. “Some kids are gonna do football stuff no matter what, and some aren’t, so why not give the kids who are gonna do something — as opposed to watching a game, or watching big hits on a YouTube channel, whatever it is, or even just going back and watching games from last year — let’s give them something that will be applicable to what they’re going to be learning tomorrow.”
Dutch Fork applies many of those bells and whistles that are becoming increasingly commonplace for elite programs — iPads and 50-inch TVs on the sidelines, plus games and daily practices filmed from multiple angles. Each Friday night, clips from three angles are cut up and delivered to head coach Tom Knotts in a regimented order — first the wide angle, then tight, then end zone. But Pelham has learned the hard way that you can’t coach everything from the field, either. In fact, you miss a lot.
When re-imagining how to teach his players, it helps to have a striking vote of confidence from his own boss, whom he calls “one of the best coaches in the country”. Knotts’ resume is jacked, with 11 state titles and nearly 400 wins across four schools in North and South Carolina. But it also lacks modernism. “Fiercely old school,” is how Pelham characterizes him.
And as Pelham has learned, that actually be a good thing in the hands of an open mind — yes, those two qualities can coexist. All he has to do is be great at his job.
“He really stays out of your way if you’re doing good things and if you can impress him with technology,” Pelham says. “If you can make it easier for the kids to understand, he backs out of the way. He does embrace technology. He’s high on film, of course, but he also likes it when his coaches are able to create playlists, are able to make the film work for him.”
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It’s this mentality of letting the coaches coach, and embracing their tech, that has allowed the Foxes to stay on the cutting edge. But it is also Knotts’ evergreen challenge to be better that feeds the ongoing dialogue about where the weak spots are — and how they can preemptively fix them.
For instance, in past years, the Foxes deployed seven or eight different pass coverages. They whittled it down to essentially two in 2018, and heavily disguised those two. Players were graded on their chicanery, with Pelham even asking them, “What does this look like to you in Madden?”
This year though, Knotts issued a challenge for Pelham. “He didn’t tell me what to do, but he said ‘This is your project,’” Pelham recalls. A catch-up with veteran NFL offensive coach Pep Hamilton, one of Knotts’ first quarterback pupils three decades ago at West Charlotte, suggested that RPOs have evolved again. Now, reads are being made at even the third level. Can Pelham come up with an answer that fits the scheme? Can the Foxes change the eye level of the quarterback with their safety movement and still be in one of their base coverages?
“We see some of the programs in our area, and they’re all improving, we’ve noticed in last couple of years,” Pelham said. “My theory is you always plan for extra. We always need extra. You don’t have to use everything, but you’d better plan for extra as opposed to too little.”
And at the very least, they’ll have as many opportunities as they want to digest his plan.
“I’ve been told a lot by the old school coaches, ‘Figure out what you want to do and major in it,’” Pelham says. “It’s the only way to survive in a video world.”
Today’s students continue to change up how they gather information, giving unlimited possibilities to those who constantly push the boundaries like Pelham.