MORGANTOWN — No matter how far the rich contracts, the corporate interference, the extravagant facilities and the convoluted governance move the game from its simple roots, some of college football’s best ideas are still born in the backyard.
Witness the white drone flying high above most of West Virginia’s football practices this spring, an innovation introduced by head coach Dana Holgorsen’s son, Logan.
“He sits on the back porch and flies that thing all around the neighborhood,” Holgorsen said. “I looked at it and said, ‘Those things are shooting videos and angles that I’ve never seen before.’ ”
That’s saying something, because the Mountaineers have plenty of cameras at their outdoor practice facility. There’s one tower positioned behind one end zone and a lift behind the opposite end zone. A second tower stands higher along a road outside the field. Multiple cameramen follow drills throughout the day.
But the towers are stationary. The lift has its limitations. The cameramen are on the ground.
A drone can cover the length and width of the field and fly hundreds of feet in the air before it pauses and hovers in place to give the Mountaineers a still, clear, new and enlightening vantage point.
“You can learn a lot of things from it, and it helps with technique as well,” Holgorsen said. “There’s a highlight video aspect of it, but there is a teaching element to it as well.”
So Holgorsen had his video coordinator, Kyle Butler, who has been on the job for 11 months, look into adding a drone to WVU’s repertoire. Butler, 27, networked with colleagues in the Collegiate Sports Video Association, first asking for tips on the group’s Facebook page and then working closer over the phone with those who use drones.
“There are a few schools I know that use them, but most of the places I talked to don’t use them, so it’s not a big thing for them,” Butler said. “A lot of people wanted to, but it’s banned on their campuses, so they’re kind of out of luck with it.”
WVU was in luck. Butler found the drone he wanted at a local Best Buy. Then he registered the sUAS — technically, a small unmanned aircraft system — with the Federal Aviation Administration, printed up a tail number and pressed it on the drone. All that was left was learning how to use it.
There are two joy sticks. The left controls elevation and rotation. The right handles moving forward, backward, left and right. A small wheel controls the camera’s zoom level. A button tells the drone when to record, and the footage feeds directly to an iPad positioned on the controller.
“I would say after probably an hour of fly time, I was pretty comfortable with it,” Butler said. “I’ve played video games my whole life, so I don’t think it was anything too crazy.”
Butler has to get permission from the Morgantown airport every day he plans to fly because campus is within 5 miles of the airport. He reports the time he’ll have the drone in the air. He’s reminded not to go higher than 400 feet.
“They’ve never told me ‘no’ yet, but they could and say that they want to,” Butler said. “They take my phone number, too, so they can call me if there’s any reason to come down.”
Wind has grounded Butler’s contribution to the spring a few times, and the Mountaineers were forced to practice inside Saturday. WVU doesn’t know quite what it has just yet, but this is part of the process.
“I’d say we’re in an experimental phase, but some of the stuff is really cool,” Butler said. “We’re still trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes I’ll shoot something, and right away I’ll think, ‘Coach is going to love this.’ ”
What’s clear is that this will work, one way or another.
A few days before the first spring practice open to the media, Butler flew the drone above the practice field and put together a video tour of the refurbished facility. WVU’s football account posted it on Twitter, and the video had more than 115 retweets and 200 likes.
A video of the Mountaineer Drill — think “Oklahoma Drill” but don’t say Oklahoma in front of the Mountaineers — showed receiver Ka’Raun White squaring off against cornerback Rasul Douglas. It had over 100 retweets and 145 likes.
“I don’t want to say it’s PR,” Butler said, “but there are some videos we can use to get everyone interested.”
There’s more value beyond marketing and recruiting, though, and that’s what the Mountaineers welcome most.
“I’ve always been the guy in the staff meeting wanting a tree stand behind every drill,” offensive coordinator Joe Wickline said.
WVU’s defensive coaches aren’t using the drone’s footage too often now, but the offensive coaches seem to like what they see and what they learn.
Seeing helps, and there were times in the past when coaches cringed watching practice film because drills were crowded by the media looking for footage of their own. It’s hard to interfere with a drone directly above the action, and it’s harder to argue with the video it captures. That’s where the Mountaineers begin to learn about their habits.
“Technically speaking, you can’t get any better,” Wickline said. “You feel like you’re in the actual picture.”
Butler likes what the drone does for field goals, because the height provides an angle that exposes good and bad technique. The shots of the Mountaineer Drill are safe from the excited players and coaches surrounding the action and give coaches an unburdened look at footwork and leverage.
Other ideas are sure to come over time.
“When it’s a receiver blocking a defensive back or a lineman blocking a linebacker in a pass-rush drill or a double-team drill, you can see when they slip off and when you don’t get the right leverage or the right fit,” Wickline said.
“You can see what they’re doing. It’s really unique. I do think if you’re not going to watch it or use it, you’re wasting your time. It’s only as good as what you use it for. I believe because of the fact we have certain uses for it, it’s unbelievable.”