Digital playbooks mean cutting-edge game prep for Badgers

Published Aug. 28, 2013 5:00 a.m. EDT

MADISON, Wis. -- Zach Nyborg recalls days in his recent past when the task of filling a college football team's playbooks was mind-numbingly boring and exceptionally time-consuming.

Nyborg, in his first year as Wisconsin's director of football operations, doesn't have to look back far. A year ago was his last of three seasons as a graduate assistant for Utah State's football program.

His weekly in-season routine for such archaic playbook updates looked something like this: Open and prepare the tabs in each playbook binder for additions. Wait two hours for a photocopier to run thousands of pages worth of plays. Stuff 50 binders full of the offensive playbook and another 50 with the defensive playbook. Fill the same binders with a scouting report on the opponent. And if, for some reason, an error was found with one of the plays, take every mistake-filled page back out, run the correct play through the photocopier and re-stuff the binders.

Surely, Nyborg recognized, a more efficient way existed. And when he found himself this season in position to do something about it, he jumped at the chance to go paperless, substituting digital iPad playbooks for bulky three-ring binders.

"Instead of hitting print and having to go wait and stuff binders, you're hitting save to PDF and you're uploading and you're done," Nyborg said.

Information has never been easier to disseminate and consume thanks to technological advancements that are changing the way college football teams operate -- for staff members, coaches and players. Companies have developed digital playbooks that appear as part of a software program on an iPad. Applications also are available for video that provides players with specific examples of each play. Now, college programs with the financial resources have outfitted entire football teams with their own personal iPads.

At Wisconsin, the convenience factor of every player having an iPad already appears to be paying dividends. In years past, players would have to lug a huge playbook around in their backpacks or trek to the coaches offices on the eighth floor of Camp Randall Stadium simply to watch video. Now, both are accessible in a tablet from the comfort of their own homes, facilitating the opportunity for smarter players.

"The books we had at Utah State were old-fashioned big binders," said first-year Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who spent last season at Utah State. "The problem with that is that people kept those in their lockers or they kept them in the meeting rooms. They never took them home to look at them. We would encourage it at times, but it was so big and bulky they never did.

"So now, guys are taking the iPad home. They're eating dinner and they're watching film. We're so much farther ahead of the game just because of that fact."

Added Nyborg: "From what the feedback from the coaches and kids is, it's translating to the field. The ability to be able to watch themselves and to see it and not have to be here and have 24-7 accessibility is what's helped them the most."

Wisconsin is one of a few college teams to take a page from the NFL, where nearly half the teams use digital playbooks and video. Stanford became the first known college football program to join the digital revolution in 2012 when it signed with Denver-based PlayerLync. Last season, Duke, Ohio State and Syracuse signed with Global Aptitude, and Wisconsin has agreed this season to a one-year contract with XoS Digital, joining schools such as Georgia, Maryland and Washington.

In the cutthroat business of college football, gaining any advantage possible within the framework of the rules is paramount. Digital playbooks are the newest means to an end.

"To enable the set of collaboration tools that ultimately get the coaches' thoughts out of their heads and out to the team as fast and effective as possible, that's what it's all about," said Bob Paulsen, CEO of PlayerLync.

"This is an ever-changing game. You've got one week to prepare and when something new pops up that you figure out -- the quarterback has a bruised thumb -- whatever it is, the faster you can adapt to the situation, the better your chances of winning. That's what we've really enabled."

Speed and convenience

Rob Porteus sits inside a video room inside Camp Randall Stadium fiddling with one of four computers near his desk space. This is where Porteus, Wisconsin's director of video services, helps make sure all practice footage correctly uploads through a private server to reach all Badgers coaches and players.

Porteus can stay in the video room hub while the team's graduate assistants shoot practice video on five cameras scattered across the football stadium. Using something called Virtual Network Computing (VNC), a graphical desktop sharing system, he can remotely control all the data. When graduate assistants upload video on SD cards in the middle of practice, they appear on a computer in Porteus' video room, and he begins the process of converting it for use in the XoS Thundercloud playbook.

"I'm putting practice together while practice is going on," Porteus said. "When the last drill is done with, hopefully we're just finishing up with the last drill on video. If things go well, coaches usually have it about 15 minutes after practice is done."

The updates allow coaches to go up to their office and instantly start watching after practice because the systems are connected in the building. Porteus said it takes about 45 minutes after practice to push all the data to every player's iPad.

One of the many functions video provides is it allows players to watch specific plays in practice because graduate assistants label each repetition and help upload it to the iPad. If, for example, the quarterback wants to watch every repetition of his snaps, he can do so the same day. Coaches can call up every third-down play of more than 10 yards or other specific situations that simply were not accessible in years past. If players want to watch game footage of upcoming opponent UMass, or study game film from last season, they can do so without walking to an office.

Currently, Wisconsin uses two separate applications for the playbook and the video. But those two are expected to be integrated in time for Wisconsin's season opener against UMass.

"It saves you a lot of time," Badgers linebacker Ethan Armstrong said. "It goes with you everywhere. Anytime you have 20 minutes between a class or while you're eating lunch, whatever it is, you have an opportunity to watch film, review your playbook. It's a lot more convenient. And it's just a piece of technology that's going to change it all for us. It's just incredible."

As for the playbook portion of the iPad, every player's playbook consists of a series of folders: a position folder, a scout folder, a side of the ball folder and a team folder. Inside, players can look at specific plays and make various annotations that appear only on their iPad. They can underline, highlight, create text boxes, take photos off the coach's whiteboard and insert it into the play or watch video examples. Coaches can also provide updates instantaneously. If a coach makes an addition at 2 a.m., players are able to see it when they wake up the next morning rather than wait until the next team meeting.

Nyborg's iPad in his team folder contains a concussion fact sheet, recruiting information, weekly in-season schedules and fall camp schedules. Athletic trainer Mike Moll also emails Nyborg before every staff meeting with each day's injury report, which is placed into an iPad folder.

Much of the data in all these iPads is quite sensitive, and the program could be hurt if those outside the football team obtained such information. That is why security is a big factor in the digital age. The devices are password protected and have a security element to protect the playbook from outsiders. Wisconsin uses a mobile device management system called Mobileiron that allows administrators to wipe data at any time if a playbook is lost or stolen.

"If we have updates, it's secure," Porteus said. "If players are trying to do stuff they're not supposed to, it can cut them off. You can't email clips off of this. You can take a screen shot, but you're not going to get a whole lot out of that. With the playbooks, security is a huge thing. A player could go to a photocopier with his old playbook if he really wanted to. He can't forward stuff off his playbook. The guys have got to be secure about it, too, but there's built-in securities."

What next?

Despite the clear advantages digital playbooks and video provides for teams, the vast majority of college football programs have yet to pick up on the trend, though exact numbers are vague because not every team wants such information made public.

"The truth is I'm kind of amazed how slow college has adopted this stuff," said Paulsen, the PlayerLync CEO.

A couple factors appear to be slowing that progress: finances and equity issues at the college level.

Mississippi State purchased 100 iPads through Apple for its football players in the spring. The university then bought 13 more for the coaching staff. According to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, players' iPads cost $65,800, or $658 per tablet.

Wisconsin spent $72,475 for 130 iPads -- a cost of $557.50 per unit. The athletic department purchased the iPads using donated funds from the UW Foundation.

The cost of an entire software package, Nyborg estimated, was an additional $80,000-$90,000. But that included outfitting the men's and women's basketball teams and the men's and women's hockey teams with the same video capabilities. Finding that type of money also generally requires time because the budget must be approved from school administrators. Policies must then be in place if an iPad breaks under the supervision of a student-athlete.

"If a guy on the Baltimore Ravens drops it and he breaks it, you charge him $500, get a new one," Porteus said. "It's tough. You can't always do that with a college student. He might not have money."

Nyborg said Wisconsin decided to purchase new iPads in the spring after Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez brought up the idea at a booster club meeting. He wanted to know how Badgers players could more easily access video to have outside of the coaches' offices and create an advantage for players and coaches.

"He's like, 'If it'll help you and it'll help the kids, then absolutely let's do it,'" Nyborg said. "It was a bang-bang move. That was really an administrative deal, too. We had to push the button and be like, 'OK are we going to go?' Once he said full-go, then it was kind of a scramble to do it."

Equity in athletics is a factor because schools worry it won't be fair if only the football team uses digital playbooks and not other sports. Though Wisconsin's football team is the only one outfitted with iPads, four other programs at the school currently use the XoS video technology. Seniors in good standing with the football team get to keep their iPads upon graduation.

Wisconsin football coach Gary Andersen called the use of digital playbooks a "big step" for the program.

"It opens up a lot of windows, communication on a day-to-day basis," he said. "For instance, right now, the camp schedule is sitting there. The young man opens up his iPad, and there it is. He doesn't have to worry about putting it in his locker or wherever it's going to be.

"The challenge, as I told the kids, as we move through this with these iPads, is if you practice on Tuesday and you come back at 6:30 in the morning for meetings, and you haven't sat down and watched your practice on your iPad and watched you personally and go back through that, then it's really a waste of money."

Matt Marolda, executive vice president of XoS Digital, said once teams see the advantages of a digital playbook, the number of schools using it will surely increase. He also intends to push digital playbooks into the Division II, Division III and even high school levels if schools are willing to adapt them. XoS Digital is in the process of releasing products for the Windows 8 tablet as well.

"If you get the right teams early, then others will follow them," Marolda said. "Very few people are willing to take a risk on something like this relatively speaking. It doesn't take many examples for others to say this is a no-brainer for us right away.

In addition to the technological advantages, the selling point is that after the third season of using digital playbooks, it will begin saving programs money when compared with the cost of high-volume printing, ink and toner expenses. Paulsen noted one NFL team spent more than $100,000 per year to maintain paper playbooks before switching to digital playbooks.

Though growth remains relatively slow for digital playbooks in college football, Paulsen believes the future is bright. Teams without the same services are falling behind and losing time.

"You've got to know everybody is going this way," Paulsen said. "It doesn't make any sense to continue printing paper playbooks."

Nyborg, like many who have seen both methods up close, certainly can attest to that point.

"It's a huge teaching tool to be able to see everything and watch it on film," he said. "It's a slick deal."

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter