By Jack Williams
It’s no wonder Ralph Friedgen, Georgia Tech’s offensive coordinator, lights up football scoreboards everywhere he goes. The guy’s using 12 players every down.
But let’s set the record straight. No rules have been broken. His 12th man is a computer.
Football, of course, is becoming more computerized at every level with coaching staffs analyzing opponents’ tendencies and what works and doesn’t work for their own teams.
But Friedgen, winner of the Frank Broyles Award as college Assistant Coach of the Year in 1999, has carried computerization to a new level with a number of unique uses. He has pushed different buttons in a different era and guess what he has on his computer – a speed reading course for quarterbacks.
Believe it or not!
Here’s how it works. He has flash cards with various defensive formations printed on them. He puts the cards on a computer, has them regulated to flash for 1/100th of a second or maybe a little more, emails them to quarterbacks (mostly in the off-season), and asks them to explain what defensive alignment they saw. The quarterbacks get an “A” if they can identify exactly where every defender is lined up.
The idea for this type computer operation was suggested to Friedgen by a consultant, Tech athletic nutritionist Rob Skinner, and then Dr. Barry Siler of the Chicago Vision Institute came up with the flash regulator.
“Vision is the key word,” Friedgen said. “Every good quarterback I’ve coached had great vision, the ability to see the entire field. Every bad quarterback did not have good vision. That’s the way it always works.
“A quarterback has just two seconds to make a decision. Think about that – just two seconds. The more a quarterback can anticipate, the quicker he can make a successful decision. On every play, the quarterback should first check the free safety, the strong safety and then the line, and go from there.
“When I coached in the NFL at San Diego, our quarterback, Stan Humphries, had amazing vision. He could see every defender on the field in just a flash. Sometimes, he would describe what he saw, and I would dispute him. But when we looked at film, he was always right.
“I have become intrigued with vision. Before I had these cards on computer, I would just hold them up for a second and ask players to tell me what they saw. Joe Hamilton had outstanding vision. He could see the entire field and that’s very interesting considering his height.
“Now our current quarterback, George Godsey, is developing outstanding vision. That’s one reason why he is enjoying such a successful season.”
Godsey put the “speed reading” to good use at Clemson’s Death Valley last Saturday, tossing a 16-yard touchdown pass to Kerry Watkins with just seven seconds left to lift the Jackets to a 31-28 victory. Godsey passed for a school record 454 yards in that game.
Friedgen admits, however, that it took a strong human element to produce the winning touchdown play. He says computers and coaching decisions had little to do with the outcome of that play.
“It was a play we call ‘Sting,'” he said. “It’s a play we normally would not use inside the 18-yard line because you need more field than that to make it work properly. But I knew Kerry Watkins would not get double coverage at that point in time so we gave it a shot. I told George Godsey during the timeout I wish we had more field, but we would just have to make do with what we had.
“The Clemson star linebacker (Keith Adams) pushed Watkins down as he started running the route. But Kerry didn’t give up on the play. He got up, continued running the route and make a spectacular one-handed catch. I told Kerry I was prouder of him for not giving up on the play than I was for the catch he made.
“As fate would have it, when he took the fall, we bought just enough time for the play to develop. Coaching had nothing to do with it. Everything had to go our way on that play and it did. It was redemption for Kerry because he dropped a ‘touchdown pass’ running the same route against North Carolina State.”
Godsey has become Friedgen’s pet project this football season – and it is paying off big- time. The Tech junior from Tampa, Fla., currently has 2,007 passing yards and 18 touchdown tosses. His play has helped lift the Jackets into 25th place in the AP poll with a 6-2 record.
Many fans doubted Godsey could so successfully step in and replace Hamilton, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1999. Did Friedgen have doubts, too?
“Yes, I did,” he answered. “George has exceeded my expectations. He has improved so much physically and in his ability to throw the football. He seems to play better when the game is on the line than he does at the start of the game. That is really to his credit. He has real character and is very intelligent. A lot of people who are intelligent do not have football intelligence. George has both.”
Friedgen says Godsey’s greatest improvement has come in the mechanics of passing the football. “Obviously, he has a strong arm because he used to throw 90 mile-an-hour fastballs in baseball,” the coach said. “But George was throwing a football just with his arm. He was not taking the step forward to follow through and use his hips for more strength.
“I knew that he would not be able to pass deep successfully until he learned to use his hips in his throws. He finally mastered that technique. He did it on his own in the summertime. Now, as this season has progressed, he has become much more successful at throwing the ball deep. He is getting more velocity on the ball.”
Godsey also is the first to acknowledge that Friedgen’s speed-reading course, his patience and his overall coaching genius have helped make him a better quarterback.
Meanwhile, Friedgen is thinking up more ways to out-fox opponents with his computer.
“If I learn that an opponent is not taking advantage of the technology in many of the ways we do, then my first thought is that they are in real trouble,” Friedgen said. “With the help of my computer, I am doing things now in five minutes that used to take six months.”
Rob Skinner calls Friedgen “the most computer-literate coach I’ve ever known” and adds, “Some coaches are afraid to try new techniques. Coach Friedgen embraces the new ideas.”
And talk about new things. Now get this. Friedgen is thinking seriously of turning some of his offensive schemes into a video game. “If guys are going to sit around playing those computer games,” he said, “they might as well be looking at my offense.”
That’s Ralph Friedgen-at his best.