Technology changes how high school football coaches prepare their players
On a hot day in August, the Xaverian football team took the practice field. While almost all of the Hawks grabbed pads and a helmet, one team member reached for a different piece of equipment.
Senior Bradford Regan is tasked with filming every football practice and scrimmage by use of drone. Regan is a varsity tennis player who will receive a letter for his role with the football team.
This state-of-the-art technology was donated by an alumnus to give Xaverian coach Al Fornaro and his staff a bird’s-eye view from which to evaluate their players.
“It’s a great view,” said Fornaro. “It’s really good for our younger guys to show them how our defense aligns. We tell them to watch film of themselves with a critical eye and see where they can improve. You can’t hide from the eye in the sky.”
Filming football games and practices is nothing new, but technological advances have streamlined and improved the process.
Many veteran coaches used to hire companies to record their games on 8mm film. Eventually they made the switch to VHS, then DVD, and now most footage is widely available online.
The standard game-film tool is provided by Hudl, a Nebraska-based software company with more than 160,000 active teams and 4.4 million unique users. All but two of the 311 Massachusetts football programs pay $800 for an annual Hudl subscription and approximately half of those programs pay an additional $1,000 for Hudl Assist, which provides faster turnarounds and in-depth statistical analysis.
Most teams have a student filming games and uploading the footage to the school’s account.
Xaverian, and other programs such as Marshfield, Hingham, and Bedford, use the same process to upload from drones, but those floating cameras are prohibited during games.
Fornaro is one of many coaches using Hudl Play Tools (a $200 add-on) to design practice scripts and project the opposition’s plays onto screens in an interactive fashion. Coaches have administrative access, allowing them to release film on opponents incrementally, or send specific clips to their players, who can watch on their phone, tablet, or computer.
A veteran defensive coordinator and second-year head coach, Fornaro used those tools to script a practice in preparation for an opening-week matchup against two-time defending state champion Everett. But he made sure to keep it simple.
“With all these tools at your fingertips, you can almost overprepare,” said Fornaro. “He who prepares for everything prepares for nothing. So I’d rather give [players] a little to practice a lot.”
In July, Xaverian’s Catholic Conference rival St. John’s Prep became the first high school team in the commonwealth to join the invite-only Hudl Franchise Partner Program.
The program includes a dedicated 24/7 assistant at Hudl, guaranteed turnaround for film and analysis, and access to Hudl’s current and future innovations. The partnership goes beyond football, providing coverage of every varsity sport at Prep and providing unique analysis for all of the school’s approximately 850 student-athletes.
“The technology is going to be a huge asset to our coaches across the board,” said Prep athletic director Jim O’Leary. “Whatever proven technology has come out, we’ve always been there at the forefront. And this is the future.”
Prep coach Brian St. Pierre quarterbacked St. John’s Prep to a state championship in 1997, finished his Boston College career with the third-most passing yards and touchdowns in school history, and played in the NFL (2004, 2009-10).
He became head coach at his alma mater five years ago and began using modern technology.
“I was blown away,” St. Pierre said. “Compared to my experience as a player [at Prep], it’s light-years ahead. It’s even better than the stuff we were using in the pros when I was done playing.
“In high school, you don’t have these kids in meetings as long as you do in college, but [Hudl] has closed the gap a bit in terms of what you can teach and install on a weekly basis.”
St. Pierre recognizes the importance of film study at football’s most scrutinized position and often works with his quarterback.
Junior Matt Crowley took over as Prep’s starting quarterback midway through the 2017 season and was able to excel despite a lack of physical repetitions in part because of his commitment to taking mental reps through film study.
“When I was a backup, a lot of my reps were taken with Hudl,” said Crowley. “After [becoming the starter], I was able to make connections based on what we saw on film.”
The Hudl Franchise Partner Program could allow Prep coaches to break down film in real time using tablets on the sideline, as is now the standard in the NFL. But the use of sideline replay is banned under MIAA rules, which currently follow NCAA rules with a few tweaks. The use of replay could be allowed when Massachusetts teams begin playing under National Federation of State High School Associations rules beginning in 2019.
Steve Dembowski, the head coach at Milton and coaches’ representative on the MIAA Football Committee, said the use of sideline replay devices will be discussed in the offseason.
“There’s no doubt that technology has changed the game,” Dembowski said. “The only drawbacks are for the schools that lack the facilities and are therefore behind the 8-ball. That’s something we have to take a closer look at.”
Scituate defensive coordinator Mike Aveni is the Hudl territory manager for Massachusetts, giving him a unique perspective on this growing trend.
“A lot of programs were pleasantly surprised that Hudl Assist is very cost-effective,” said Aveni. “By now, most teams have an unofficial expert on staff and everyone knows how to use the tools. Like any tool, it’s about what you craft out of it. That’s where the real coaching comes in.”
There is no denying that technology has improved the working relationships between players and coaches. It saves time, allowing students to focus on schoolwork and coaches to prepare their athletes without intruding on their personal or professional lives.
In Dedham, Noble & Greenough followed St. John’s Prep by signing a one-year contact to partner with Hudl. For Nobles athletic director and girls’ basketball coach Alex Gallagher, it was a no-brainer.
“Most of our students have over three hours of homework a night,” said Gallagher. “We can’t ask them to watch hours of film on top of that. Filtering the video allows us to show the kids much shorter bursts of the film that we want them to see.
“While I’m sure it will help our teams competitively, that’s not what motivated the move.”
This year, several schools will test out the new Hudl Focus feature for other sports. The developmental program includes a smart camera that can follow the motion of a basketball or volleyball, pan and tilt accordingly, and synthesize the data from dozens of games. As long as the schedule is up to date, the Focus camera can record each practice and game automatically before uploading to an online database.
At the cost of $2,000 annually, Focus may be outside the budget of some public schools, but Hanover, Silver Lake, Drury, Marlborough, Quabbin Regional, and Whitman-Hanson are among the programs beta-testing it.
“Teams have recognized that these systems are no longer a luxury,” said Whitman-Hanson athletic director and boys’ basketball coach Bob Rodgers. “It’s something you need.
“Visual learning is such a key component in this day and age. Everybody is going to use [Hudl] to some degree. The question is: Will it be affordable?”