Conrad Ukropina predicted all of it. As Notre Dame was driving against his Stanford team in the final minutes of last Saturday night’s game, the Cardinal kicker said to his buddy, the team’s punter, on the sideline: “Dude, I’m calling it right now . . .”
Ukropina not only accurately touted that the Irish would drive down the field, bleeding the clock, and score the go-ahead touchdown, but that then Stanford would also move back down the field with almost no time left and set him up for the game-winning field goal on the final play.
After QB Kevin Hogan fired a deep pass across the middle to Devon Cajuste for a 27-yard gain, which would put the Cardinal in range for what became a 45-yard field goal, Ukropina thought, “Oh, my God, it’s coming true.”
Then, he calmly booted the game-winner. Just as he’d done in warmups and precisely as he’d seen himself do repeatedly for 15 minutes earlier that morning.
Like many athletes, Ukropina visualizes what he’s about to do before he attempts it on the field. However, now he’s been able to take that process to another level mentally because of the virtual reality technology that Stanford football has bought into. As FOXSports.com first detailed last March, STRIVR Labs’ breakthrough that was created in Palo Alto one year ago and was primed to make a big impact on the sport has not only been embraced by football programs all over the country both in college and the NFL, it’s also being used in ways that go well beyond helping QBs get hard-wired to decode blitzes and pick apart defenses.
Ukropina went 0-3 on field-goal attempts in the spring game. This season, he’s been using VR visualization every Friday and Saturday before games, and thanks to his 15-for-17 performance this season, the former walk-on is a semifinalist for the Lou Groza award given the the nation’s best kicker. Ukropina started using VR in the fall. He’ll kick live field goals during practice. “We set the camera right where I start from and I’m able to see my whole process from 1-2-kick,” he told FOX Sports. “A big thing for me technique-wise is my plant foot — sometimes I come in a bit too close. The average person watching it wouldn’t notice.
“The VR’s helped me a lot from a visualization standpoint for my confidence.”
Ukropina watches every kick he’s made twice through the Oculus headset, which puts him right there going through the process so his mind — and body — are wired in to the experience. Crowd noise and game sounds accentuate the feeling.
“I take my first step to the screen just to get into the rhythm,” he said. “Then, I’m locked in to where my plant foot needs to be from a timing standpoint.”
Derek Belch, STRIVR’s founder, actually coached Ukropina for two years when the former Stanford kicker was a Cardinal grad assistant. "We basically built a visualization tool for him,” said Belch. “It’s what we refer to as ‘third-person viewing.’ (Arizona Cardinals QB) Carson Palmer said it also really helps because he’s studying his footwork, his eyes, his throwing mechanics, and they’re able to view themselves in a high-presence, three-dimensional way rather how they normally watch film which is in two dimensions from the perspective of 50 yards back and 50 feet up in the air. This experience is very powerful, and all the research that (Stanford professor) Jeremy (Bailenson, the world’s leading authority on VR) has done in his lab supports that."
Like Ukropina, Palmer has made dramatic improvement this season, and also is effusive on the impact VR has made on his performance since the Arizona Cardinals signed on with STRIVR. According to THE MMQB, Palmer uses the VR system after practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to ID blitz keys. He also has a unit at home that he hooks up to a laptop.
“It’s phenomenal,” Palmer told Peter King. “I don’t buy in to all the new technology, I’m archaic, and I thought, There is no way this can change the way I play quarterback. But I am all in on this. I’ll watch pressures on this during the week, and I swear I have flashbacks from a game, seeing the same pressures. The other thing that is cool about it is watching mechanics, because I can put the camera behind me. So if I’m in the pocket standing one way, I can put the camera behind me, I can have it to my right and to my left, and I can watch my feet. I can watch my arm whip at different angles and make sure my elbow is in the right spot. I can watch my feet stepping into throws, and I can go back and see complete or incomplete. Am I putting the ball in the right spot? Was it on his face or was it low back hip? You can accurately see where you missed a throw, or you can see why that throw was so good, because you can see yourself transferring weight and stepping into it.”
The 35-year-old Palmer is having the best season of his 12-year career. His TD-INT ratio is 27-9 and he’s averaging 8.89 yards per attempt — a full yard and a half better than his career average. The Cardinals are 9-2 and have scored more points than any team in the NFL. They are one of six NFL teams that have been using STRIVR’s VR system. Three of those six — the Cardinals, Vikings and Jets — are considered “heavy” users, which STRIVR defines as a team that not only captures content regularly but whose players actually watch/train with the content on a regular basis.
According to Belch, of the 16 teams that have signed on with STRIVR, 14 of them capture content on a daily (or near-daily) basis throughout the season. All of these teams capture content from the QB viewpoint. The "heavier" users also capture from linebacker, safety, and even the kicker’s viewpoint and then take the VR setup to the hotel the night before games for extra visualization and mental training. Teams that are considered "heavy" users: Stanford, Clemson, Temple, Dartmouth, Arkansas, the Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets.
In the case of the Vikings, who are 8-3 and lead the NFC North, the team’s quarterbacks have a regular Saturday morning VR meeting, where they review all of the week’s 7-on-7 reps. Minnesota QB coach Scott Turner said it’s been helpful for backup Shaun Hill to get "reps that he’s not getting on the field," and in the development of second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who also used the system a lot during training camp. "It’s really been a good tool for us,” Turner said.
“Teddy’s made such good decisions. He doesn’t make costly mistakes. Teddy has only thrown two INTs in our territory this season."
As detailed in the story from last March, Stanford QB Kevin Hogan made a significant improvement late in the season after starting to use a VR headset regularly for about 20 minutes before games. Hogan has continued to blossom this season for an offense that has improved from No. 50 nationally in yards per play last year to No. 21. Arkansas QB Brandon Allen has also become a big believer in VR. His completion percentage is up from 56 percent last season to 65 this year. He’s thrown nine more touchdown passes this year than in 2014 and also two fewer INTs. His yards per attempt has soared from 6.74 to 9.08.
“It’s helped a lot giving me a great mental picture (of the blitzes and rolling coverages) that I’m going to see,” said Allen. “And our scout team does a great job with it.”
Last winter, Stanford head coach David Shaw, who is an investor in STRIVR, predicted VR technology will be "everywhere" in football in three years, max. "I’m thinking in two years this is gonna be in a lot of places and three years from now, you’ll feel like you’re left out if you don’t have something like this.”
It now seems like his time frame was conservative by a year.
Asked how he’d reconcile the nature of coaches being competitive and battling the temptation of keeping an edge from his opponents with the business side of making the VR trainer available to other FBS programs, Shaw smiled: "Initially, we’re pushing to sell to NFL franchises," he said. "I’m not selling the company. I’m not running the company. I’m not a decision-maker. I’m an advisor, but at some point, it’s gonna proliferate. This is too good. This is too good for football. This can help advance the sport. You’re looking at cutting down practice times. You’re looking at having guys hit less and do less. This is one of those things that everyone gets what we want to some degree. We as coaches want them fully prepared, but now we’re not keeping them on the practice field any longer. You’re getting more work with less practice time.”
STRIVR’s latest client to just sign on: Utah. And, Belch said three other Pac-12 schools are about to bring the VR systems to their football programs. It appears the competitive Pac-12 edge may be lessening for the Cardinal.