Penn State football: Video operation brings Nittany Lions’ game plan into focus

tjohnson@centredaily.comNovember 2, 2013 

Penn State videographers shoot footage from above practice fields in an effort to help players and coaches improve their gameplay.

MARK SELDERS — Photo provided

— An electronic hum filters out of room 230 inside Penn State’s Lasch Football Building.

Although the door is open, Room 230 is a few degrees warmer than the hallway outside.

On the far wall, facing the doorway, a cluster of flat-screen TVs flash — they’re all tuned to different channels. Below them a stack of seven DVR and cable boxes blink, red lights indicating recordings in progress. At least nine laptop computers and three desktops sit at the ready. A row of cameras rests on a far counter that’s also lined with walkie talkies on permanent standby.

Only head coach Bill O’Brien’s office is bigger than this one. The Bill and Kim Kerlin Video Suite — where video coordinator Jevin Stone and his assistant, Blake Newsock, operate daily — is the football team’s intelligence headquarters. All team video, opposing team scouting clips and reels of preparatory footage pass through here with Stone and Newsock as intermediaries.

“People have no clue what we do,” Stone says. “I break it down like this to people: A video department is kind of like an offensive line. Most fans don’t know anything about offensive line play until when? Until they give up a sack or the running back didn’t get enough yardage. Nobody knows about football video until this computer doesn’t come on or until we miss a play.”

Stone is in his second year as the team’s video coordinator and his fourth overall season with Penn State. He and Newsock, who’s been on staff since June, aren’t in the habit of missing anything. The duo and five student videographers see everything and are responsible for relaying every play, every snap to the coaching staff and players when they require it.

“He’s got a big job because video is very important to us,” O’Brien said. “He's got a big job in the fact that every single day that’s our main teaching tool, the ability to go in there and watch film.”

Details at Peyton’s place

Stone is a tinkerer with a knack for drawing out details. He’s always looking to upgrade anything he can.

Take a simple composite football schedule for example. Stone picks up last year’s sheet of paper with all the Big Ten football teams down the left margin and their opponents along the top. He goes through and checks off each square of the grid when he and Blake have compiled all the cut-ups and game film from each Big Ten opponent’s games.

He proudly picks up this year’s schedule. It’s much more spiffy, complete with team colors and logos and each team’s helmet to make it more visually appealing. It’s also easier to decipher with a quick glance.

On the sheet, Wisconsin’s first seven opponents have red Xs drawn through them, because Stone and Newsock have already compiled film from those Badgers games. It’s the same for Purdue, Minnesota and Nebraska.

Stone is used to working ahead and zeroing in on details.

When his days playing along the Indiana State offensive line ended, he tried his hand at video editing for the Sycamores. A teammate of his, tight end Ryan King, was getting NFL looks and Stone was tasked with filming his buddy’s tryouts in addition to filming the Sycamores’ practices. A chance encounter with an Indianapolis Colts scout led to an exchange of phone numbers. Stone got an offer to serve as an intern with longtime Colts video coordinator Marty Heckscher in 2003.

Weeks later, Stone was the guy setting up a tape deck in Peyton Manning’s home theater so the quarterback could watch every snap he took.

“Manning had an office literally right next to the video office. He was a video guy,” Stone says. “He hung out in our office every day. He was the first one in the building every day. At 6 a.m., he’d come in, say ‘What’s up’ to us, shoot some jokes; he’d come in with practice tapes. Back then, everything was on tape.”

Soon, Stone found himself following Manning everywhere on the practice field. Manning wanted every snap he took on film, even warm-up reps with just a center. So Stone developed a system he dubbed “Ladder Cam.”

“We’d take that marching band ladder and anywhere Manning was on the field taking a snap from a center,” Stone said. “We were 10 yards behind him, filming him up close so he could see his footwork and his steps in every single drill, every single practice.”

The eyes in the sky

The “Ladder Cam” was an idea O’Brien embraced when Stone ran it by him shortly after the former New England Patriots assistant took over at Penn State in 2012.

So, Stone went out and bought a few ladders. He quickly realized it was a much different chore to carry a ladder across five possible practice fields — the team’s three main fields behind the Lasch building and two more inside Holuba Hall.

But typically, Stone and his crew film from much higher up -- from lifts that extend a few stories into the air to provide a sweeping view of Penn State’s practice activities.

Stone and Newsock remain on the ground, relaying directions via walkie talkies to student interns who take turns in the lifts.

“The student managers are the main reasons Blake and I get by every day,” Stone said. “They are what keep this office going. They are the ones shooting practice. They are the ones shooting games.”

There are five interns with the team this year. Their majors range from pre-med to communications.

Katie Keller, a Penn State sophomore, is one of them. Her dream job is to be a videographer for National Geographic magazine. Her sister saw an ad in The Daily Collegian about an opening on Stone’s staff and forwarded it to Keller last spring.

A member of her high school’s video production club, Keller was an ideal candidate for the position and became the first female video intern for Penn State last fall. Along with her co-workers, Keller puts in nearly four hours a day filming and reviewing raw footage of football practices.

Each intern arrives around 3 p.m., before football practice begins at 4:30. Each has her or his own cubby in the video room with a tripod ready to hook up to a camera and safety harnesses to keep them fastened in the lift. Each intern also has to undergo training to operate the five moveable lifts, situated along the sidelines and end zones of the practice fields. Each lift is operational every practice, with an intern shooting each field — offensive drills, defensive drills and special teams.

“Most people don’t realize the time that goes in,” Keller says. “When I say I work for the football team. They’re just like, ‘Wait, what do you do?’ I say, ‘I film.’ They say, ‘So you film the games?’ I say, ‘Yeah and I film practices.’ They say, ‘Wait. What do you film at practice?’”

Once practice ends, each intern breaks down the cameras and drops off the raw film to Stone, who takes over from there.

Breaking it all down

Stone and Newsock use a system called XOS to digitally edit and categorize practice shots, game film and footage of opponents. It’s elaborate and expensive. Stone estimates a $100,000 price tag with nearly $75,000 in support costs.

Scrolling through the system’s interface on his main desktop computer, Stone demonstrates how each week’s worth of practice film is broken down. Every day has its own folder. Each practice is divided by offensive and defensive workouts. Each drill is separated and then organized and tagged accordingly in the system.

With a few clicks, Stone can access any drill from any angle, sidelines and end zones, and provide it to any coach who requests it in a matter of seconds. He clicks on a Monday practice session leading up to the Ohio State game. He brings up a defensive line versus offensive line drill.

There’s defensive end Deion Barnes rushing left tackle Donovan Smith from the end zone view.

Each play from every game starts with a shot of the scoreboard so a coach can properly gauge the situation in terms of the time left, plus the down and distance.

Using a “Cowboy remote” — a 10-button handheld device that functions like Stone’s computer keyboard — a coach in the team meeting room can freeze, speed up, slow down or reverse a shot, or hop to the next play, or show repetition in the sequence quickly.

When a player wants to watch film on his own time, Stone uses a program called Hudl to push practice or game clips to a player’s mobile device, iPad or laptop computer. Each player has been set up in the Hudl system with his own group of folders to look for the appropriate clips. If a player wants to watch himself versus the “Dirty Show” — Penn State’s scout team — it’s in that folder. If he wants to watch an upcoming opponent, there’s a folder for that, too.

“(Quarterback Christian) Hackenberg could come in here right now and say, ‘Hey Jevin, can you send me yesterday’s 7-on-7?’” Stone said. “I’d say, ‘Sure, alright Hack, it’s going to be in your playlist folder.’ Click on 7-on-7, put it in playlist, go down here and click on Hack’s name, boom, click, hit start import and he’d have that in two minutes.”

Coaches are always looking for film, too. O’Brien has a projector and screen set up right next to his desk while other coaches use similar set-ups. In the main team meeting room, a desk with a computer manned by O’Brien sits to the right of a massive projector screen. Stone sits nearby, ready to hop in should anything malfunction.

“A coach can come in and say, ‘Give me all the third downs, on the left hash, at home on a rainy day,’ ” Stone says. “They can narrow it down that specifically to how they want it, because football is all about tendencies. That’s how in many ways a coach will put a game plan together by the tendencies and what an opponent is doing.”

The old-fashioned way

While his job is far from simple, it used to take Stone much more time to compile cut-ups for players and coaches to study.

When Stone was in Indianapolis, NFL teams were still using beta and VHS tapes. Stone would have to make copies of each game film for every coach, player and most members of the front office. Of course, he could only copy them in real time. He shudders to think if he would’ve had to use the same process to copy Penn State’s film from the recent Michigan victory — all four hours and 11 minutes.

Back in the old days, he said, the coaches would give Stone a list of scenarios they wanted to see and what tendencies they were hoping to game-plan for against a given opponent. If they wanted all the third-and-two plays, Stone would label a tape “Third-and-twos” and pop it in and out of the VCR alongside the master copy, hit play on the master and record on the “third-and-twos” tape for each third-and-two play the opponent ran.

It was the same drawn-out process when Stone worked for two seasons in NFL Europe for the Berlin Thunder and Frankfurt Galaxy in 2006.

“In NFL Europe, we didn’t have computers,” Stone says. “I would have a desk full of tapes from each game and you would sit down and that’s back when you’d have to individually pick out what kind of cut-ups you would want.

“You couldn’t get any of your footage until the tapes were dubbed,” he said. “I was just telling Blake, when I was in in Indianapolis you’d have to make 15 copies of that one game. When the copies are done, you put one on (former Colts’ Vice Chairman) Mr. (Bill) Polian’s desk, one on (Colts’ owner Jim) Irsay’s desk, one on (former coach Tony) Dungy’s desk. And all the assistants. You’re not even at the players yet.”

While digital systems such as XOS and Hudl have quickened the process, they haven’t necessarily made it easier on coaches, O’Brien said.

Now there are more cut-ups to look at, and the added options give teams plenty of scouting possibilities to be better prepared.

“Compared to when I first started coaching, when it was SD VHS tapes and there were no digital systems like that, it's totally different,” O’Brien said. “It does it makes your work a little bit easier as far as how you organize the info, but it definitely gives you more things to look at in a faster time. So it adds a workload to your plate a little bit.”

Getting ‘mad-dog mean’

Newsock flashes a grin as he talks about his other responsibility — post production.

Each week he puts together a motivational video to pump up the team for its upcoming lifting sessions. He has used clips from the 2007 action film “300” in addition to others cut together with video — some of it shot by WPSU — of Penn State players working out or playing on Saturdays. He pulls up a recent one on his Mac featuring clips from the classic 1976 Clint Eastwood western “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”

Eastwood’s character, Josey Wales, hisses as rapper Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” begins to fade in:

“When things look bad and it looks like you’re not going to make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. Because if you lose your head and you give up, then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”

As the lyrics to the song pick up, Wales guns down a few adversaries and the clips of Penn State players lifting weights become more prominent, the repetitions getting harder and harder. It was the video Newsock, along with strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, developed leading up to the Michigan game.

Newsock is always thinking of post-production ideas and looking to get ample angles from the field.

“Each week when we go to the games we already have it set up and kind of planned out like, ‘What kind of shots do we want from this game?’ ” Newsock says. “We’re thinking, ‘What are some shots we’d like to have? Well, let’s get some good entrance shots so for two years from now we can pull those back for the history.’ ”

Keeping up and keeping on

Stone shuffles through a recent text thread on his phone. Penn State wideout Allen Robinson is looking for some clips of himself. He needs to see how he ran a certain route or adjusted to a certain coverage against the Dirty Show.

A few clicks and Robinson has what he needs.

Every player learns how to watch film at his own pace. Offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach said he never realized the importance of critiquing his own play until he got to Penn State. Safety Jesse Della Valle had a wider background in film study from high school as a skill position player, but even he’s learned more about that aspect of the game since he’s had a video staff run by a man with the experience Stone has.

“Jevin’s a great guy. He’s pretty on-point with everything,” Dieffenbach said. “You don’t really need to tell him what you need. Usually an hour after practice the film’s up. Or that next morning, the game’s up and we have all the tape we need and we have all of next week’s game.”

Stone has learned to love his work. He gets a little emotional when he’s asked about Heckscher, the man who gave him his start in a field he never thought he’d end up in. Before he got started doing video work for the Sycamores, Stone contemplated a future performing comedy routines.

But after a decade of working behind cameras rather than in front of them, Stone is quite content with the way things have turned out.

“I wanted to pack up my car, my little 1988 Buick LeSabre, pack it up and move to California and be a stand-up comedian,” Stone says. “I never knew this job existed.”

Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.

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