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.
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”.
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.
Where’s the game going? Our partners at X&O Labs show you the latest trends, and how you can adapt.Download the Report
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”