National Team experience helps coach take high school program from 0-10 to state title game

By Will Heckman-Mark | Posted 12/18/2014

In just two seasons, Dennis Thomas led Salem High School in New Jersey from the bottom of the cellar to the top of the mountain.

The Rams went 9-4 in 2014 and finished one win away from a state championship after posting a 0-10 record in 2012.

Thomas was the running backs coach for the U.S. Under-19 National Team at the 2014 International Bowl in Arlington, Texas, and IFAF World Championships in Kuwait. He credits his experience with USA Football as an influence on how he rejuvenated the Salem program.

“It was a great experience,” Thomas said. “I had the opportunity to coach with some really good college coaches. You learn a lot about the Xs and Os, a lot of professional development, and I was able to bring that experience to Salem, which was phenomenal.”

As the national governing body of the sport, USA Football is granted permission by the NCAA to employ current college coaches at Regional Development Camps, National Development Games and international competitions.

Salem historically used the full house formation, a five-decade tradition within the program's run-heavy system. This fall, Thomas introduced the National Team’s spread offense that was “pretty much unstoppable” for his Rams, who averaged 27.5 points per game – more than twice the offensive output of the 2012 team.

He also switched Salem’s defensive scheme to a 3-3-5 to match the National Team, allowing as many of his athletes as possible to be on the field at the same time, causing “havoc and matchup nightmares” for opponents.

Thomas credits National Team offensive coordinator Marc Beach of Daytona Beach (Fla.) Seabreeze High School and wide receivers coach Sean Pender of Pierce County (Ga.) High School for his new offense. His inspiration on defense comes from U.S. head coach Aaron Brady of Malvern (Pa.) Prep.

Along with new tactics, Thomas’ National Team experience has helped him change the structure of his practices to make them more dynamic and teaching-driven.

“We have a more game-like atmosphere at practice,” Thomas said. “We are more efficient and productive, teaching football every minute of practice. When we do our 15 minutes of calisthenics, we focus on warming up with dynamic stretches and incorporating football while doing it. Our kids aren’t going to do jumping jacks in a game, so they aren’t going to do them at practice.”

Thomas had been an assistant coach at Salem before returning as head coach in 2013. At the time, there was little optimism around the Salem program.

“The mood was somber. They didn’t really know what direction they were going to go in,” Thomas said. “When I came in, I was determined to make USA Football a big part of our program. To bring a world-class coaching program to the city of Salem, it’s priceless – the little intricacies of the game, the wealth of information and the knowledge that you actually gain while being associated with it.”

That included implementing higher academic standards. Just like the athletes who compete for the U.S. Under-19 National Team, the Salem Rams attended mandatory study hall sessions every day before practice.

“I want our kids to strive to excel on and off the field,” Thomas said. “One thing I want to make sure is if they have the ability to play Division I football, their grades are not hindering them from doing that. We have a lot of kids on the honor roll. No one on our team had a D or an F, and we had a 100 percent graduation rate from our football players.”

He may have been the head coach, but Thomas passes credit for the program’s turnaround on to his players and the other members of his staff.

“I have a great coaching staff. They really help me make the engine go,” Thomas said. “Without those guys and the administration being behind us 100 percent, we can’t make this happen. … And our players, it’s unbelievable how much they’re maturing. Their standards for themselves have changed dramatically. They expect to be competing for a state championship and be a team to beat. That’s a real testament to the program and our coaching staff.”

His time with the national team not only provided Thomas with great teaching tools to bring to Salem but with an experience of a lifetime.

“I thought it was amazing to be a part of Team USA, to represent the country and to travel around the world,” Thomas said. “I don’t think I will ever have a bigger honor. The opportunity to coach with national champs, college coaches of year, that’s what USA Football has given me the opportunity to do. It doesn’t get any better than that.”