Read­ing Darnold’s thoughts a re­al­ity

Cut­ting-edge VR tech­nol­ogy al­lows USC to see in­side quar­ter­back’s mind.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Zach Helfand

Tyson Hel­ton, USC’s quar­ter­backs coach, stood in a film room Monday hold­ing a strange, round gad­get that looked like a smaller ver­sion of Luke Sky­walker’s pilot hel­met.

Hel­ton said he was go­ing to use it to read minds.

“Be­fore you put this on,” Hel­ton said, “I can turn this thing any­where and see where you’re look­ing.”

To demon­strate, he ro­tated the hel­met from left to right. On a tele­vi­sion mon­i­tor next to him, a view of USC’s prac­tice field panned in sync, left to right.

The hel­met is USC’s lat­est edge: a vir­tual re­al­ity set that al­lows quar­ter­backs to en­ter each other’s eyes and take rep­e­ti­tions vir­tu­ally, and for coaches to fol­low along, see­ing ex­actly what the quar­ter­back sees.

At each prac­tice this sea­son, a stu­dent trails the quar­ter­backs hold­ing a long boom topped with cam­eras point­ing for­ward and back. The stu­dent holds the boom a few feet above the quar­ter­back’s head. Within an hour af­ter prac­tice, the quar­ter-

backs can don the head­set (or watch on an iPad), cue up plays and look around in 360 de­grees as if they were back out on the field.

The Tro­jans have joined a grow­ing num­ber of teams chas­ing a tech­no­log­i­cal ad­van­tage. Stan­ford, with the com­pany STRIVR, pi­o­neered vir­tual re­al­ity film study three sea­sons ago. XOS Dig­i­tal, USC’s ven­dor for all video, said it counted 25 vir­tual-re­al­ity clients in col­lege and pro­fes­sional foot­ball and bas­ket­ball.

On Monday, USC pro­vided a glimpse at how its quar­ter­backs use the sys­tem to steal pre­cious prac­tice hours on the vir­tual field. In­side the hel­met, a glance down re­vealed the top of a hel­met shin­ing in the sun.

“All right now, this is on Sam, OK?” Hel­ton said.

Quar­ter­back Sam Darnold’s hands were out­stretched for the snap. Straight ahead were USC’s line­men. Through head­phones, coaches barked in­struc­tions. It was like step­ping into Darnold’s head — or that of some or­gan­ism float­ing right above him.

Look to your left, Hel­ton said. A turn of the head showed Deon­tay Bur­nett in the slot. Cor­ner­back Ajene Har­ris lined up op­po­site Bur­nett, mir­ror­ing him — a bad sign for that route.

“So right now Sam should say, ‘No, I don’t have it,’ ” Hel­ton said.

The clip rolled for­ward. The ball was snapped. Darnold tried Bur­nett any­way. Har­ris jumped the pass and nearly in­ter­cepted it.

What was he think­ing, Hel­ton wanted to know. Af­ter prac­tice, Hel­ton ran the play back. He could fol­low Darnold’s head, look at what Darnold looked at: namely, Bur­nett and Bur­nett only.

“Sam be­ing Sam, he thinks he can fit ev­ery­thing in there,” Hel­ton said.

In the film room, Darnold knew his er­ror im­me­di­ately.

Un­like bas­ket­ball or base­ball play­ers, foot­ball play­ers earn only mar­ginal gains train­ing on the field alone. The best learn­ing comes in full team drills. But that takes time and peo­ple and car­ries an in­jury risk.

So Stan­ford coach David Shaw, an early in­vestor in STRIVR, which was founded by a former Stan­ford player and grad­u­ate as­sis­tant named Derek Belch, started his quar­ter­backs on vir­tual re­al­ity in 2014 to trick their minds into think­ing they were see­ing real ac­tion.

“In the mid­dle of a game, the plays about to start, and he says, ‘I’ve been here be­fore. I know what’s go­ing to hap­pen. I’ve seen this be­fore,’ ” Shaw said of his quar­ter­backs at last year’s Pac-12 me­dia days. “Boom. Change the pro­tec­tion. Touch­down pass.”

Bill McCarthy, foot­ball prod­uct man­ager for XOS, said teams have ex­per­i­mented with de­ploy­ing cam­eras at dif­fer­ent po­si­tions on the field such as line­backer or even the per­sonal pro­tec­tor on punt drills.

USC coach Clay Hel­ton said run­ning backs have found the train­ing par­tic­u­larly use­ful. Last week, he was ex­cited about ex­per­i­ment­ing with lineback­ers.

“We tried it,” said Eric Espinoza, USC’s di­rec­tor of foot­ball video op­er­a­tions. “It just didn’t give the look that he wanted.”

Espinoza and an­other video staffer, Daniel Dmytrisin, crunch all of USC’s prac­tice video. Coaches and play­ers hoard, con­sume and ob­sess film as if it were le­gal ten­der. Film shows which player can win a start­ing job. It shows which op­po­nent has a tell. It shows what op­pos­ing teams will do to break foes down.

USC records from tow­ers high above its end zones, zoomed out to fit all 22 play­ers. Tyson Hel­ton said he still uses this tape 80% of the time. But it leaves im­por­tant gaps.

“A lot of times when you coach in the film room and you’re look­ing at the video from the an­gle up top,” Hel­ton said, “it doesn’t tell the true story of what [the quar­ter­back] saw.”

For play­ers, stan­dard game film is like a good text­book. It’s a foun­da­tion. But some­times what they need is a lab. This is es­pe­cially true for back­ups.

“Sam uses it some, but be­cause he’s get­ting a lot of reps and he’s a lit­tle more ex­pe­ri­enced player, he al­ready knows what he’s done wrong,” Hel­ton said. “But the beauty of it is the young play­ers ... be­cause it al­lows them to get the clos­est thing to a live rep as pos­si­ble.”

Jack Sears, USC’s fresh­man quar­ter­back, uses the sys­tem more than any­one.

“Jack’s a gym rat,” Hel­ton said. “Jack lives at the of­fice. I mean, lit­er­ally you have to kick him out, like, ‘Jack go home, man.’ Be­cause he en­joys the process. He en­joys it. Right now he doesn’t know any­thing, and he knows he doesn’t know any­thing. So he’s try­ing like hell to get caught up.”

Hel­ton cued up a play from a re­cent prac­tice. The play gave Sears an easy read to ei­ther side.

“You’ll watch Jack’s eyes right here,” Hel­ton said. “Watch him. He goes left with his eyes. He goes right with his eyes. And then back late. You kind of see his head mov­ing a lit­tle bit.”

With the cam­era an­gled down from a few feet over Sears’ head, it’s clear that both op­tions are open, but his hel­met swivels as if he were shak­ing off a 3-2 curve­ball. Sears’ hes­i­ta­tion lets a blitz­ing line­backer through, so he takes off and runs.

To cor­rect these mis­reads, Sears spends about 20 hours a week watch­ing film on his own, a ma­jor­ity of it in vir­tual re­al­ity.

The NCAA al­lows coaches to spend 20 hours a week with play­ers on foot­ball-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties. But Darnold alone takes about half of the rep­e­ti­tions dur­ing prac­tice. Dur­ing the sea­son, his work­load bumps to about 75% of rep­e­ti­tions.

As Hel­ton left the film room Monday, Sears walked in, hold­ing a skate­board.

“We were just talk­ing about you,” Hel­ton said.

Real prac­tice would be­gin in a few hours. But be­fore it be­gan, Sears needed time alone, to prac­tice.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

SAM DARNOLD and his fel­low USC quar­ter­backs are tak­ing ad­van­tage of vir­tual re­al­ity train­ing.

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