Teaching the technology generations that grew up learning on computers can be a challenge — whether it’s English, history or football.
A few years ago, A.J. Smith, then offensive coordinator of a small college in Louisiana, was struggling to teach a receiver to read a defense while running his pass routes. Frustrated, Smith pulled out a video game from the late 1980s — something called Tecmo Bowl. He inserted his receiver’s No. 47 jersey on a receiver in the video and directed the receiver on what route to run against a two-deep and a three-deep secondary.
“Is that me running that route?” the receiver asked. “Coach, I get it. I understand what I’m supposed to do now.”
Smith said he couldn’t teach the young receiver by telling him or showing him on a chalkboard or doing it on the field. It literally took a video game for the receiver to learn what to do.
That exchange between coach and player planted the seeds for what today is a Texas-based company called VAR Football.
“We’re utilizing today’s technology to teach and train football players the way young people learn today. It’s a tool to teach them in their language,” said John Paul Young Jr., chief operating officer of VAR Football.
Smith, currently wide receivers coach for the XFL Houston Roughnecks and chief executive officer of VAR Football, discovered the idea and put together the video capabilities.
Young, who previously worked for the helmet manufacturer VICIS and is a son of former NFL assistant coach John Paul Young, provided the coaching contacts and business acumen for the partnership of longtime friends. VAR Football began as a vehicle to train quarterbacks in today’s pass-oriented offenses.
“Quarterback is the most difficult position to play in all of sports, and 95 percent of football is mental,” Young said. “They’ve got pre-snap reads. They have to set the blocking, check for blitzes, make any play audibles, read the defense and make an accurate throw. With the extra reps we offer, all those decisions can become second nature instead of the quarterback having to think and react.”
A couple of similar companies are catering mainly to pro and college teams. Young priced VAR Football to be feasible for high schools. After launching last season, VAR has about 50 clients — some colleges but more high schools in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.
“With the traditional press box and over-the-top camera angles, you never see the game from the quarterback’s eyes. What we needed was a way to see from his eyes and his level,” said 36-year-old Nick Codutti, offensive coordinator at Class 5A Tomball, located 30 miles north of Houston.
The VAR system starts by videoing practice from the quarterback’s perspective with 360-degree capability. After practice in the film room or coaches’ office, the quarterback puts on the VAR goggles and sees the practice from his viewpoint. By turning his head while wearing the goggles, the quarterback can see from sideline to sideline. He can see the correct decisions he made.
He also can see where the ball should have gone when he made wrong decisions.
By wearing the goggles that include earphones, distractions are eliminated. Quarterbacks are forced to focus. This singular focus allows young quarterbacks more reps. Even with UIL rules limiting football players to eight hours of on-field practice per week outside the normal school day, quarterbacks can get dozens of extra daily reps with VAR.
“Reps are the mother of all learning,” said Billy Noonan, 30-year-old head coach at Houston St. Pius X. “We don’t have turf. If it rains and our field is muddy, we can still get reps with VAR.”
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Coaching at their fingertips
With the video plugged into a computer screen or a big screen TV, coaches can talk to their quarterback while he’s wearing the goggles. Other quarterbacks also can watch the big screen TV and receive extra simulated reps.
Coaches can even coach their quarterbacks if they’re not in the same room with voiceovers as practice plays unfold, instructing the player on what to look for. Coaches also can circle or highlight the defender to read in order to determine where the ball should go.
“Our quarterbacks can come in at lunch and get coached even if I’m not there,” Noonan said. “They can get 25 reps in five minutes. We went through an entire week of spring practice in one hour.”
Codutti said, “We’ve gone through 30 plays in a 15-minute meeting, and you can do it without the physical wear and tear on your entire team practicing outside. The efficiency of our quarterbacks is much higher since we started using VAR. They’re more self-regulated in knowing where the ball needs to go.”
Noonan said VAR expedited the learning process with his two new varsity quarterbacks during spring and preseason practices.
Washington State QB benefited
The highest profile example of VAR’s teaching possibilities came last fall with Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew.
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A graduate transfer from East Carolina, Minshew received VAR video of Washington State’s spring practices to get him up to speed before he joined the Cougars last summer.
All Minshew did was lead the nation in pass completions (433) and passing yards per game (367.6). He also led Washington State to a school-record 11 wins and broke the Pac-12 Conference single-season record for passing yards held by Super Bowl quarterback Jared Goff.
The capabilities of VAR can go beyond quarterbacks. Remember, Smith planted the seeds for VAR by coaching a receiver. The virtual reality possibilities enable video from the perspective of any player — receivers reading defenses, defensive backs reading receivers, offensive linemen reading defensive slants and stunts, and linebackers reading the eyes and tendencies of quarterbacks.
“We need to embrace technology. I’m constantly amazed at what kids can do with it,” Codutti said.
Mike Lee writes a weekly high school football column during the season for the USA Today Texas Network newspapers. Have a story idea? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.