- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

Maryland Terrapins quarterback Sam Hollenbach receives a play call and walks up to the line. He surveys the defense before taking the snap, then spots a safety and begins to work through his reads. Finally, he slings a pass to a wideout near the sideline for a first down.

Hollenbach, though, isn’t on the field. Instead, he is controlling a video version of himself as part of the latest technological wrinkle at the Terrapins’ disposal. Maryland’s quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs are already benefiting from an advance that could quickly change how teams scout and teach schemes.

The Pro Simulator, part-video game and part-instructional tool, places the user in the same position he would be during a game. The plays are the same as those the Terps use and face on Saturdays, down to a receiver’s precise cuts and an opposing defense’s tendencies — and in three dimensions as well.

“It’s a lot different than just reading plays on a paper,” said sophomore receiver Danny Oquendo, who averaged about two hours a day of simulator work this summer. “You get to see the plays visually, with your own eyes. It’s like taking mental reps. It’s like a game as well, so it’s not just like boring work.”

The simulator is the latest addition to Maryland’s already high-tech program. It is not the first time the Terps are part of the technological vanguard under coach Ralph Friedgen, though a digital video editing system isn’t as easy for a casual fan to visualize as a game that supplements on-field experience.

The system is set up on a laptop in the Terps’ team house and includes controllers reminiscent of those used in PlayStation 2 or Xbox and a digital projection system that creates a large view of the field on a screen. It can also be installed on computers in a player’s dorm room, where new play calls from coaches can be downloaded into the program from e-mails.

And while the price tag was quite high (more than $200,000, with individual controllers about $1,000 each), the Terps’ staff figures a team filled with guys who spend down time playing games from EA Sports’ Madden NFL series would fit right in with the new purchase.

“I was sold because I’m a big Madden fan,” said receivers coach Bryan Bossard, whose unit is the team’s least experienced and is arguably the biggest beneficiary of the new system. “Now you can put your own offense against another team’s defense and do basically the same type of thing. Our kids love the Madden game, so it’s a smart investment.”

Friedgen discovered the simulator at the American Football Coaches Association convention in January. Company representatives flock to the event and set up exhibits near the event’s registration table, hoping to lasso a coach or two into taking a peek at their products.

Friedgen waded through this sea of salesmen who knew of his affinity for cutting-edge gadgets and was approached by a representative from GridIron Technologies. Friedgen said he would give the man 10 minutes for a demonstration, but he didn’t emerge from the exhibit until an hour and 40 minutes later.

“He really kind of captured what I’ve been trying to do for a long time,” Friedgen said. “Now that I’m in it, it still has to get better to get really functional. I think it’s going to be a very, very good tool once we perfect it.”

Honing the simulator is part of team manager Ryan Steinberg’s duties. He has plugged away in the Terps’ old quarterbacks meeting room since the winter, inputting the nuances of Friedgen’s detailed offense. Inserting the calls of opposing defenses is another of the job’s facets — and one that will be especially time-consuming during the season when there’s new opponent game film to analyze.

Steinberg is usually the first to detect bumpy spots in the simulator, and talks with company representatives about three times a week to work out glitches. Among the first problems — helping a visiting contingent of three company reps adapt to Friedgen’s pro-style personnel packages and avoiding situations such as fullback Tim Cesa lining up out wide in the simulator.

“They didn’t know that, and it’s probably our fault for not telling them that up front,” Steinberg said. “We had to put a grid out that said we need an H2, a Y2. But when the NFL gets it, they’ll be able to do it based on what we’ve already done.”

Players also struggled initially to pick up parts of the program. Pressure-sensitive controllers take time to master, and the computer keeps track of how often players make mistakes.

For quarterbacks, it means finding the safety and progressing through reads. Receivers must run precise routes, even in plays in which they aren’t supposed to receive a look. All of it is timed, and coaches can administer tests to gauge knowledge of a particular set of plays.

An extra benefit is accurately scouting an upcoming opponent. If a team relies on a particular blitzing scheme, Maryland’s players will be able to recognize the movement of other defenders before the snap and adjust accordingly.

“At first I was saying to heck with this,” senior receiver Drew Weatherly said. “As I came in here and sat down and focused in on it and relaxed, [I learned] it’s actually a good program that helps you out a lot.”

The maturation of the receivers will reflect the Terps’ short-term benefits of using the program, but their young quarterbacks might have the most to gain. Transfer Josh Portis and freshman Jeremy Ricker rarely receive snaps in team drills and neither has mastered Friedgen’s offense, making their simulator work even more significant.

Still, it should help Hollenbach as he enters his senior season. He split time between the simulator and film study in the summer, with the simulator serving as a middle ground between scouring game tape and taking practice reps.

“It gives you so many situations that it just helps broaden your library of things that you’ve seen or experienced,” Hollenbach said. “What helps me [is] just having a real big library of plays and defenses that I can just set on random and not know what I’m going to get. That’s just helped me stay sharp and I’ve felt that.”

Notes — Former Maryland offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe was named an interim offensive assistant at Pittsburgh. Taaffe takes the place of assistant head coach Bob Junko, who had offseason open-heart surgery and will take a leave of absence from his on-field duties. Taaffe was the Terrapins’ offensive coordinator the last five seasons before his February resignation. …

Maryland reserve defensive end Deege Galt was carted out of practice after suffering a knee injury, and Friedgen said he was uncertain of the severity of the injury.

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