The Educator

What better time for the preeminent juggernaut in South Carolina to shake up how they do things than after one of the most dominant seasons in state history …right?

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.