Technology revolutionizing UK football

broberts@herald-leader.comAugust 23, 2014 

College football coaches around the country are throwing out their paper playbooks and magnetic recruiting boards.

The game has gone digital, and the University of Kentucky is on the cutting edge.

Through a longstanding partnership with a leading sports technology firm and the recent arrival of a tech-savvy staff, UK is doing things behind the scenes that players and coaches would have never considered just a few years ago.

An early start

A high school player enters the digitized world of college football as soon as he signs with the Wildcats. The new signee receives personalized login information that is used to access the program's playbook, workout routines and other tools to help the player prepare for his college career.

A typical high school senior signs with a college in February and enrolls in June. That gives the player four months to learn the ins and outs of his new team before he arrives on campus.

Some players take advantage, some don't.

A few new Wildcats acknowledged during UK Media Day this month that they put off learning the system until they got to Lexington.

Freshman wide receiver Garrett Johnson did the opposite, poring over the materials as soon as he got access to them and coming to town well-versed in Kentucky football. He was one of the early standouts of fall camp, and he attributed that to preparation.

"It's as tough as you make it," Johnson said. "Sometimes you can start earlier and make that transition so much easier. ... Starting early — that was something I kind of took upon myself."

Junior-college linebacker Ryan Flannigan didn't have a choice.

While the rest of the class of 2014 was already on campus in June, Flannigan was stuck back in Texas finishing his coursework.

He arrived in town just in time for fall camp but already knowing what to expect.

Flannigan stayed in contact with defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot throughout the summer and was able to access all of the materials that UK sent him via his iPhone. Eliot would call and quiz Flannigan on what he had learned, and Flannigan could ask his future coach any questions that he had about the material.

The information included what workouts to do and the correct way to do them. As a result, he arrived on campus in shape and on the same learning curve as his teammates.

"Everything they were doing, I was doing," Flannigan said. "Every play they were learning, every film session they had, I had on my account at home."

Nothing like this was in place when UK defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh showed up for his freshman season at Auburn in 1995. Brumbaugh developed into an All-Southeastern Conference player, but he recalled feeling out of place in his first practices.

"These guys are a lot more prepared than when I first went to college," he said. "You went in blind. You didn't know anything. You were thrown in the middle of practice, two-a-days. And all of a sudden, two or three weeks later you're in school, so you have a full load school-wise. You got games. I mean, that's a lot on a freshman."

iPads for everyone

When a new signee arrives in Lexington, there's an iPad waiting.

Every player on the team received one in the days leading up to Mark Stoops' first game as UK's head coach last year. New additions like Johnson and Flannigan got theirs as soon as they enrolled in school.

The tablet is more tool than toy for the Wildcats.

With the iPad, players can access all of UK's practice and game videos via the XOS Digital ThunderCloud, which stores the information on a private network. Playbook and workout information is on there, too.

UK director of football recruiting operations Dan Berezowitz has worked closely with XOS Digital to implement the technology at Kentucky.

"In the old days, they'd give guys packs of DVDs and tell them to go home and watch the video," Berezowitz said. "Now they can give them specific stuff."

Instead of hauling around an armload of discs containing video files, players can access anything they want with a couple of taps of the iPad screen.

Video of every play from UK's practices and games is shot from multiple angles and neatly classified using several different data fields, then quickly processed and turned over to the coaches.

When a practice is over, UK's coaches meet with the media and maybe grab a quick shower or a bite to eat. Within about 20 minutes, they're all assembled in one of the meeting rooms at the football complex.

First, they watch the practice video as a group before breaking into offense and defense and then ultimately going on their own to watch the film by position. During this process, coaches attach comments or critiques to each video snippet.

The video is processed within a couple of hours and stored in the cloud, where players can log in and see whatever they want.

For example, if junior cornerback Cody Quinn wants to look at every play he participated in during Thursday's practice, he can do it. Some of those plays might have a corresponding comment from one of his coaches, and his access isn't limited to the time that he was on the field.

"I try to look at all of them," Quinn said. "Even when I'm not in, I try to look at little stuff and break them down and understand everything that's going on.

"It's really beneficial. You can see the little errors and the little things that are going on. And once you see it, they're easy to correct."

The individual viewing of video hasn't replaced team film study. Players still meet as a group and with their individual coordinators and position coaches to go over practice and game film.

The iPad technology simply gives players looking to learn a little more a quick and efficient way to do so.

"That's the last layer of learning for the kid," Berezowitz said. "The learning comes from on the field, in the meeting room with the position coach, from the video — and then the iPad is just that extra step for them to, on their own, absorb as much or as little as they want."

'All at your fingertips'

Christian Fiero is less than two months into his new job as video coordinator for the UK football program.

He was hired this summer from Florida State, where he spent the past four years, getting to know Stoops and Eliot during their time there and working as part of a national championship staff in the season after they left.

Overseeing the video operation during practices and games falls to Fiero.

Early in his workday, he receives a practice schedule with times for specific drills. Fiero morphs that schedule into a spreadsheet that divides filming duties among his videographers — all students — who are told what, when and from where they will be shooting that day's activities.

Included on the spreadsheet are bold lines that tell the videographer when to "pop" the memory card on their camera. The card is given to another student — a "card runner" — who literally runs the card into the football complex where it can be edited and cataloged while practice is still in progress.

A typical practice will have six videographers — five elevated and one on the ground — and each videographer might pop their card five or six times over the course of the practice.

The process on game days is much the same.

Every play is shot from three angles, with one camera in each end zone and another on the sideline.

Fiero — a lifelong UK fan who graduated from Woodford County High School — won't get to watch the Wildcats play much football this season.

He'll spend the first five or 10 minutes of the first quarter on the sideline, then head to the press box so he can begin the editing process. At the end of the first quarter, he gets the first batch of video and starts cutting up the plays. At halftime, he edits the second quarter. And so on.

Within about 45 minutes of the final whistle, the game video is all in the cloud and ready for the coaches to watch and grade.

"Our job isn't real sexy," Fiero said. "We're not doing the highlights for the video board, we're not doing the real cool stuff. My boss at Florida State used to describe it as, 'Those guys paint Picassos. We paint houses.' But you can't miss anything. You have to have total coverage, and it has to be done fast."

Fiero gave an iPad demonstration of the finished product, and the convenience of it all is readily apparent.

Within a matter of seconds, he had pulled up a specific play from UK's game at South Carolina last season. All it took was a few taps on the screen.

The video that UK's players and coaches can access isn't limited to their own games and practices. Last year's film for all of this season's opponents is ready to view and easily searchable by just about any scenario imaginable.

If Eliot wants to see every one of Tennessee-Martin's plays that went for more than 20 yards last season, he can do it. If Neal Brown wants to see how the Ohio University defense lined up for every third-and-short play in 2013, the video is there.

"And it's all at your fingertips," Fiero said.

Recruiting goes digital

This particular video technology isn't unique to Kentucky.

XOS Digital contracts with more than 20 NFL teams and more than 100 high-level college football programs, and the Southeastern Conference requires all of its teams to upload their game video each week for others in the league to see.

UK's involvement with the company, which was founded in 1999 and has offices in Florida and Massachusetts, predates Stoops and isn't limited to the football program. XOS Digital CEO Matt Bairos said the athletics department has been a "great customer" for more than a decade, and the basketball program also uses their video technology.

That longstanding partnership and XOS Digital's relationship with members of the Wildcats football staff, particularly Berezowitz, has given UK early access to the company's latest advancement: a recruiting program based on software originally developed for NFL scouting

"It's really targeted at taking the old magnet boards that are in everybody's staff room, putting them online and allowing them to be updated in real time when people are on the road recruiting," Bairos said.

From now on, all of the recruiting information that programs compile on high school prospects will live in the cloud.

The new product amounts to somewhat of a digital dossier on high school recruits. Each player in the system has his own file, which contains evaluations by coaches and recruiting analysts, highlight videos, statistics, links to social media accounts and a record of the contact between the school and the prospect. It also allows coaches to leave notes for each other in the player's file.

The technology will be especially helpful when UK's coaches are scattered across the country looking at different recruits. Since the information is in the cloud, they can access it immediately from their iPads and smartphones.

If a UK coach is getting ready to meet with a kid and needs a quick refresher on his background, he can get up to date with a couple of taps on the screen.

The cloud will also house UK's recruiting board, which ranks the program's top targets at each position. Instead of shifting around magnets on a big, clunky board in one of the staff meeting rooms, coaches will be able to move players up or down on their list from anywhere with Internet access.

It's the same process — and the same program — NFL front-office officials and scouts use when evaluating possible draft picks and free agents.

"It's going to make us more efficient," Berezowitz said. "It's going to make us more cutting edge with what people are doing in the NFL. Basically, what a scout does in the NFL, a position coach does in college.

"In the NFL, you coach and you have a whole bunch of guys who are out there scouting. We only have 10 coaches that can ever leave campus. It's not like we have 10 other guys that go scout them."

Berezowitz said his recruiting staff will have profiles of more than 1,000 high school juniors loaded into the system by the end of the month, ready to be updated as the season progresses.

Here to stay

The advancements in technology haven't always been met with enthusiasm, especially among the old guard accustomed doing things a particular way.

The idea of putting your entire playbook in the cloud was especially daunting for some coaches who might not have even known what a "cloud" was until the conversation began.

Bairos explained that it's really no different than handing an 18-year-old kid a paper playbook. "They're only a Kinkos away from having a full copy," he said.

As soon as a player or coach leaves the program, his access to the information in the cloud can be shut off immediately.

Berezowitz noted that all schools have the same access to each other's game video anyway and said XOS provides enhanced security measures to protect the rest of the program's information from falling into the wrong hands.

"We take it very seriously," Bairos said. "That's something that's vital."

Not everybody in football contracts with XOS, but every high-level program and franchise now uses some brand of similar technology on a daily basis.

Tablets are popping up on NFL sidelines, and Berezowitz says the league is working with new technology that could allow for aspects of UK's lauded High Performance Program to be digitized and immediately available to players and coaches.

"To be in college and pro football now, you've got to be tech savvy," he said. "It's just a sign of the times. All of football has become digital, and technology can only help you. So our guys embrace it.

"You list all of the things you have to do in a day as a coach, that day goes by like that."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog:

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