A buzzing drone hovers over a soccer field on Southwest Florida Christian Academy’s campus, capturing aerial views of the ant-sized football players below.
From a shaded corner, the uncle of a Kings player directs the flying gizmo with a controller that looks like it’s straight out of an Xbox. Attached to it is an iPad mini, which shows a live feed of formations and plays in real time.
Mark Harden presses his thumb on a toggle and watches as it moves with grace across the sky and then he presses another button and it shoots 49 feet in the air.
From his iPad, he can see everything the drone sees – two opposing lines, a quarterback, a running back, wide receivers, the coaches, a football – only it’s clearer, as if he’s in the sky himself.
Later, he’ll take the SD card from the device, hand it to SFCA head coach Mike Marciano and then wait for the inevitable pat on the back. “Bro, you’re a game changer,” Marciano will say.
In reality, these two men, one a high school football coach and another a local businessman, met by chance just weeks ago. But Marciano isn’t one to let fortunate encounters go to waste.
He enlisted Harden, whose daughter is a cheerleader at SFCA, just days later. And within a few weeks, the Kings made use of Harden’s drone for the first time in a game against First Baptist Academy in September.
It captured kickoffs, first downs, even touchdowns. And if you zoomed in close enough, you could see that touchdown First Baptist Academy scored was actually a fumble at the goal line. SFCA lost by seven.
First Baptist edges SFCA, 14-7
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Technology is changing the face of high school football. From drones, to flat screen televisions, to end zone cameras, a slew new equipment is helping programs in Southwest Florida improve at breakneck speeds.
And that new technology is advancing quick. In 2006, when an online film software company named Hudl was formed, it began a deliverable, effective and cost-efficient process for high school sports to take their programs to the next level.
Nearly a decade later, some coaches can’t imagine what they would do without technology.
“The ability to be able to film practice every day,” Riverdale head football coach Damon Jones said, “and to be able to live capture with our iPads and to get that information to Hudl, that’s been the biggest advantage.”
“Hudl is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Marciano said.
Sam Sirianni Jr. was still a kid when his father, Sam Sr., used to place 16 millimeter game film on a Greyhound bus headed for Tampa following Friday night football games at Fort Myers High.
Back in 1970 in Southwest Florida, Sirianni Jr. said, it was the only way you could foreseeably produce film for the next week. Only, it took three days to get back. And patience was key.
More than 40 years later, easy-to-use software allows coaches to instantaneously evaluate game footage in real time, on the sidelines, just seconds after it’s taken.
“You used to meet coaches from Sarasota,” Evangelical Christian School head coach Tyler Gold said. “Now without having to drive anywhere, you’ve exchanged two films and you’re breaking down film at 10 a.m. rather than driving around the state.”
Throughout Southwest Florida, high school football coaches reiterated a point that’s almost universal: the athletes of today are visual learners. Whereas game film used to only be accessible during the hours athletes would train at their schools, it’s now available with a touch of a single button.
Athletes can view tape of their most recent game or practice from the comfort of their own phone. They can view it on a laptop, or an iPad, even through an Xbox.
“I’m a big believer, even when I was playing in college and in pro football – especially on the offensive side of the ball – that if you don’t have enough intel and execution, it’s almost impossible to succeed,” North Fort Myers head coach Earnest Graham said. “As the technology gets better, high school teams are going to be more productive.”
Programs can invest in an array of packages through Hudl that allow them to manipulate the film they upload to the software. Coaches can download certain clips. They can write on the plays. They can annotate. They can narrate over formations. They can even track the amount of time their players spend on the film itself.
The packages can cost from as little as $800 to $3,000 per year. Most coaches in Southwest Florida were somewhere in the middle, spending about $1,500 per year.
“You can see the last time they logged in, how many minutes they spent, how many times they’ve logged into it in 30 days,” Gold said. “If he’s only watching seven minutes of film, he didn’t get much out of it. If he watched it for 90 minutes, that’s the guy you’re looking for.”
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Of course, there are methods to record the film itself. A staple of high school football remains the sideline camera, where teams can film from the top of a press box.
But in recent years, end zone cameras have become a standard, too. Five years ago, an Ida Baker senior built an end zone camera as a part of an engineering project for school. It can adjust to as high as 15 feet and employs a camera worth about $500. In total, the model cost the program about $1,500.
Sirianni Jr. said Fort Myers took that design and built their own around the same price. Jones said Riverdale was gifted with their own end zone camera, and Naples High, which has a state-of-the-art locker room, was afforded the same from a donor, including a lift.
In Lee County, only SFCA is tinkering with the idea of filming games with drones, at no cost to them. Harden offers his services for free. In Collier County, Lely head coach Culmer St. Jean said the Trojans have a school-funded drone, which costs about $1,000, he says, but they don’t currently use it for football.
In time, he said, that will come as the programs learns more about how to use the device.
“Manpower is the biggest concern,” St. Jean said. “Someone has to have the ability to run it properly. We’ll deal with that when we get there, whether it’s a student that wants to get involved.”
At Riverdale, Jones utilizes his son’s GoPro to work with new starting quarterback Daniel Ulmer.
“For a young quarterback trying to get his eyes in the right direction, I sit behind an iPad and I can live watch right it there,” Jones said. “I can see what he’s looking at, where his eyes go and I can record it.”
Out of any program in Southwest Florida, however, Port Charlotte has been most ahead of the curve. Two years ago, when the FHSAA enacted rule 1-6, which allows communication devices within the coaches box, the Pirates have taken the change and run with it.
Head coach Jordan Ingman invested in a flat screen television, live-streaming echo software and iPads to instantaneously bring coaching to a new level. Within any given series on a Friday night, his coaching staff uploads film of the previous plays and huddles with team members to correct mistakes. It takes just three seconds from the previous play to forward to the screen in front of the players.
“It’s a game changer,” Ingman said. “It allows you to diagnosis problems a lot faster and it keeps kids focused. When they come off the boundary, they’re ready. In our world, a kid is so visual. They need immediate proof.”
In total, the investment costs Ingman about $2,700 annually.
The FHSAA is aware of how technology is changing the way football programs operate. The National Federation of High Schools does not have rules banning the use of drones.
Drone photos of Lee County from Soaring Sky
But some believe it could be a disadvantage for teams without the funds to compete on an even playing field. Essentially, coaches said, whoever has the most money to spend might have an upper hand.
“It’s the whole idea of,” Marciano said, “the last guy on the grease board wins.”
The FHSAA currently does not allow drones during postseason competition at all. Spokesperson Corey Sobers said the issue of drones will be discussed at the governing body’s football advisory meeting in January.
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You can point to Naples, currently ranked No. 6 in Class 6A, as an example of an elite program that works against the norm. Golden Eagles coach Bill Kramer, while gifted with one of the most supported programs in Southwest Florida, has not invested in cutting edge technology just yet. Outside of Hudl, Naples is bereft of the newest gadgets on Friday nights.
He has 19 coaches on staff, he says, and still relies on his staff to determine what adjustments need to be made during games. He has as many as four eyes looking at particular positions within a given play.
“The one thing you don’t want to do is overload them with too much information,” Kramer says of processing information for his players. “You don’t want them thinking too much. I think it’s better to make adjustments yourself and to let the kids know what you expect rather than pointing to a screen and letting them figure it out.”
While Naples films every game and every practice, it still relies on coaches to communicate its needs from player to player.
“We’re not ESPN,” Kramer said. “We don’t get real-time playback … We just don’t have a practical, usable platform for us yet. So I don’t know about it.”
But the conversion of coaches to newer approaches is slowly but surely taking place each and every year. Sooner or later, coaches say, teams will need to keep up.
“I really believe for a kid, there is absolutely no way you can get better other than seeing yourself,” Graham said. “When you tell a kid, sometimes he doesn’t understand what you’re saying. You’re trying to communicate, but he won’t learn until he sees it.
“Kids are visual, and when you see something, you know what you’re doing. I’m a big believer in using that.”