The Pryor Times

Sports

July 1, 2014

Putting up points

How an unlikely alliance has helped Pryor to football’s upper ranks

PRYOR, OK — Jason Freeman sat down at his computer in December of 2012 and typed in a couple words into the search bar.

Freeman had just completed his first season as the Pryor High School head football coach, which saw the Tigers amass a 4-6 record. He was about to lose his workhorse running back, Carson Smallwood, to the graduation stage and eventually the Northeastern State University locker room.

With no stud running back to turn to, Freeman knew he'd need a new offensive scheme — one that made the most out of the talent he had at his disposal.

"I was just looking things up. I Googled 'triple-option,' let's put it that way," Freeman said.

Enter Shane Fairfield.

"We get emails all the time," Fairfield said. "We put all our stuff on Hudl (a team video resource website). Jason must have seen it from there and was interested in the style of offense that we ran."

Fairfield is the head coach at Muskegon (Mich.) High School in the southwestern corner of the Michigan mainland. Art Craig, a head coach in South Carolina Freeman had contacted during his search, recommended Freeman meet with the Muskegon coaches.

Technology is quickly shrinking the sports world. It can connect coaches instantly from across the country and fueling the rapid evolution of coaching strategies.

But sometimes, a day's drive is still a day's drive.

"When they knew I was driving 13 hours, they knew I was serious," Freeman said.

The Muskegon staff made the trek to Pryor Thursday and helped with a two-day mini-camp at Pryor High School. Fairfield got a call on his way from Michigan from a coach in Glendale, Ariz. — about 16 hours from Pryor — hoping he might "swing by while we're down here."

"We've had a lot of coaches bring us to camps and learn the system, but they don't take the discipline of paying attention to the little details," Fairfield said. "For these guys to take it in in just a few trips to Muskegon and come down here and implement it the right way is huge. This has been a good relationship. It's exciting, it's fun."

The Big Reds' offense is called the ski-gun, run out of a hybrid shotgun and pistol formation. In theory, it allows the offense to double- or triple-team defenders at the point of attack and read a defense's best player rather than trying to match up with him one-on-one.

It has helped Fairfield to go 40-11 in his four seasons as head coach at Division II Muskegon. D-II is comparable to Oklahoma's Class 5A, in which Pryor competes.

"The reason you'd want to run an offense like ours is because it puts everyone on an island," Muskegon offensive coordinator Brent White said.

Freeman and his staff have had a working relationship with the Muskegon coaches for about a year and a half, and it has already paid dividends for the southern squad.

A year after replacing the Smallwood-centric offense with the triple option, the Tigers went 8-4 and earned a berth in the Class 5A state quarterfinals.

"Installing this type of offense has helped the whole program with physicality," Freeman said. "In practice, our defense has to get downhill in a hurry."

However, success didn't come as quickly as Tiger fans might have hoped. Pryor started 1-2 last year, including a miserable loss to lowly Miami in Week 3.

"They told me, 'You're going to struggle,'" Freeman said. "At the time, people questioned moving Brennon [Barth] to quarterback. I had a guy [Kegan Yates] returning who can throw it and has proved himself. Then after the Miami game, that's when we might have wanted to scrap it."

Fast-forward to the state quarterfinals. Freeman and his staff held course, and Barth racked up his 37th rushing touchdown of the season to go with over 1,800 yards. He was named the Bob Hurley Player of the Year and was the Times' Staff Pick for County Player of the Year.

Not bad for a guy who lined up at receiver in 2012.

"Each year we really try to play to the strengths of our personnel," White said.

"You don't always have one world-beater you can line up at tailback, or a gunslinger at quarterback and three receivers that go get everything," Fairfield added.

Both coaching staffs are well aware that opposing defenses will key in on Barth in 2014 after his breakout season. That is why Freeman has made a concerted effort to open up other elements of the offense, especially the option pitch and the downfield passing game.

"In the first year of putting this system in, if you don't get the run game down right, you're in a lot of trouble," White said. "As you progress, you can take more chances and develop more."

The coaches noted that Pryor has a pair of talented tight ends in Ryan Ogg and Spencer Henson, while Muskegon boasts a quartet of strong receivers. "A lot of what we do will be the same concept," Freeman said, "but it will look different on film because of our personnel differences."

The personnel differences aren't the only thing that the coaches point out on film, though.

"He [Freeman] calls me on it when I lose my composure on the field," White said with a laugh. "I finally found one of him during spring ball doing a little dance."

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