Game on: Friedgen visualizes success

April 16, 2006|By RICK MAESE

College Park -- Ralph Friedgen might as well have been in a toy store. He was attending a coaches' convention back in January, stiff-arming his way through a gantlet of vendors. They're circus barkers in polo shirts, all trying to lure coaches to their respective booths, each hawking something new and improved, something revolutionary, something that will change the way football is coached.

That's what they say at least.

"Coach, you've got to see something," one of them told Friedgen, the Maryland coach.

"How long is this going to take?" the coach asked.

"Twenty minutes," the vendor said.

"I'll give you 10."

One hour and 45 minutes later, Friedgen was ready to pull out the school's checkbook. What he saw - what he bought - has the potential to change the way the offense is coached, not just at Maryland, but across the collegiate and pro level.

There's a room at the Gossett Football Team House that's been converted into the "simulator room." It's home base for the Terps' new pricey computer program, a cross between a simulator and a video game.

On the computer screen, the Pro Simulator looks very much like a John Madden football game. But it's much more complex (and much more expensive, costing the department $240,000). When the system is up and running, players will come into the simulator room and sit in front of the computer, using a joystick that looks similar to the one you might use for your PlayStation 2.

On the screen in front of the player, he'll choose a play and watch as computerized players approach the line of scrimmage. A question will flash on the screen - "Where is the mike linebacker?" - and the player must answer with the joystick. The ball is snapped and the player then must read the defense, progressing through his different receiver options.

The benefits are twofold: Players can learn the playbook through visualization, and they'll learn how to read defenses in real-time. Because the entire playbook will be in the computer, using the simulator will mimic taking actual snaps and reading scout-team defenses in practice.

Maryland has purchased the Pro Simulator for its quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs. Only three schools used the system last year, but none of them used it as extensively as Friedgen and his staff have planned for the 2006 season.

Friedgen, with so many old-school qualities on the field, has consistently found himself at the front of the technology curve. In NFL circles, he was called the Cyber Coach. At Maryland, he was one of the first to use a digital film system that is now a staple at most colleges. And now he's embraced a video-game simulator that he thinks every other school and NFL team will be implementing in the next few years.

"Video games - it's what kids do today," he said last week. "If they're going to do it, why shouldn't it be helping our team?"

The Terps are able to custom-build each player - their own and their opponent's - according to size, strength and speed.

The simulator is something that Friedgen has had conceptualized in his head for several years. Every Division I-A school in the country has a quarterback on its roster who can throw the ball. What separates these players is what they do in game situations. That's where Friedgen hopes the simulator will help most, with timing and decision-making. (A season ago, Sam Hollenbach threw 15 interceptions, at least two picks in six different games.)

In the past, Friedgen has used flash cards and later PowerPoint presentations to help his quarterbacks learn plays. This new system is 1,000 times more complex. The Terps hope their quarterbacks can sit down with the simulator beginning this week.

Ryan Steinberg is a student manager in his fourth year with the football program. He's been promoted from laundry detail to revolutionizing the way Maryland players learn the offense. Steinberg has been inputting data into a computer for the past month, sometimes until 3 in the morning.

Friedgen draws up 20 plays a night, and the next day Steinberg types the information into the computer. For each offensive play, Friedgen builds a dozen defensive formations that the Terps might face.

Building the library and designing each player is no easy task, and the simulator might not be fully functional until late summer. But the long-term plans are big.

Players will be given remote controllers to take back to their dorm rooms. They'll be e-mailed assignments. They'll have to complete tests in the simulator room each week. The Terps will travel with laptops and the players will have to use the system Friday nights, studying plays, reading defenses and answering questions that are specific to the next day's game.

The idea isn't just that the starters will be better prepared. The program could help second- and third-stringers - players who don't get as many repetitions in practice - perhaps even more.

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