Technology, testing and an influx of data are coming to the evaluation and development of football players in high school and younger with a new program at the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.
That is the premise behind the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame Academy launched Thursday, officials said. The academy will be held in mid-July at the $500 million Hall of Fame Village in Canton, Ohio, adjacent to the Hall of Fame facility.
“We want this to become America’s best training football academy on how to make athletes into great football players,” said Richard McGuinness, the founder of the academy and the creator of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. “We need to test athletes better, where they are and where they have to go to reach the next level, whether starting in high school or getting a Division I scholarship.
“There need to be more data points. Speed and quickness are two dimensions, but the neuroscience and the reactionary part of football are other elements that never are examined. … For example, I’ve always undervalued where reaction is judged and how reaction is trained. We’d all agree great reaction is key to football, but there is a gap in there in the makeup of athletes.”
The Academy intends to run two sessions — one for high school players and one for middle school players — over four-day periods that will include testing to help athletes assess and improve their reaction time and decision-making ability; on-field coaching by NFL master coaches, position drills and 7 on 7; and classroom work to break down video and technique and get exposure to the Character Gameplan, a personal development program run by Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz.
McGuinness sold his interest in the Army Bowl more than a year ago to develop this program and also is planning a national 7 on 7 event. He said his experience with the Army Bowl provided him a “starting point for a framework to reimagine football.”
“My passion really is in how to make players better,” he said.
The four-day session begins with 3 ½ hours of testing by Axon Sports that will provide each player with 15-20 data points. The remaining 3 ½ days include coaching led by Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, former NFL coach Sam Wyche and a roster of veteran current and former NFL assistants.
“We’re taking the modern technology used in the NFL and college and bringing it to the kids, with elements like reaction testing so they can see how they stack up and the GPS system we use in the NFL,” said Woodson, currently the defensive backs coach for the Oakland Raiders who will work with the defensive backs and run classroom sessions on leadership. “The difference in what we are doing is we can modernize the game of football and also get kids to believe in themselves, believe in their skill set and believe in who they are.
“The one thing that’s missing (in other camps) is that kids that fall out of the (typical recruiting) profile. They get lost, they get left behind and don’t fit the profile of some of the major colleges. The best college players are sometimes the hidden jewels who develop a little bit behind in their first or second year in college. For us, we want to reach out to everybody, guys who believe in the system and believe in hard work.”
While the Academy would like to attract four- and five-star recruits, McGuinness, citing from his own experiences as a Division II football player, also recognizes the benefits the data, testing and drills could have to help players without as many – or any – stars.
“Two slopes across football talent are really at work in sabermetrics,” he said. “The kids that were being identified by their sophomore year in high school who are physically gifted in height, weight, strength, speed and measurables were going to dictate who the first wave of kids are and who gets recruited highly and who gets scholarships. There is a second wave of football talent developing about two years behind. Those are kids who were growing a little later, who eventually would be similar size and similar makeup, but would not be at the top of recruiting world. They end up at a lesser school.
“When you travel down the road, these second wave kids were popping up a lot more in the NFL Draft. These kids have a chip on their shoulder. They develop great technique and overcompensate with their drive and motivation because they were a bit smaller.
“I saw that over all these years in terms of how kids were being identified for college football. It’s the same sabermetrics at the NFL level to a lesser extent. There is so much less information on high school kids. At some point, we will need to repurpose recruiting to find the second wave guys, because those are players making difference in college and the NFL.”
McGuinness’ initial goal is 200-250 players in each of the age groups for high school and middle school. He said a number of teams also have expressed interest in coming as a group.
Players take part on an invitation-only basis. McGuinness said high school players largely will be identified through “a network of scouting guys across the country, sharing with us their best kids.” Still, he said, both high school and middle school athletes can nominate themselves by sending their name, bio information and a video clip. A letter of recommendation from a parent or coach or a personal essay as to why the player should be considered is also required. McGuinness is quick to say the intention here is not to rank middle school players for recruiting purposes. Nominations are being accepted at http://www.ProFootballHOFAcademy.com.
The cost per player is $499 for the 22 hours of training and does not include transportation or lodging.
Beyond the instruction at the camp, players will have two significant takeaways, McGuiness said:
First, organizers are planning to provide the data to college coaches and any recruiting websites as long as the player provides his consent. That data could potentially help attract more recruiting attention.
Second, players will get a position-specific take-home curriculum to make the experience more year-round, McGuinness said, stressing the plan is to “supplement” instruction that players receive from their high school coaches.
“It has performance, skill and reaction drills,” he said. “It spells out all of it and allows kids to do it home. It doesn’t require 10 other athletes on a football field. Most of it can be done in a garage or a basement to make that kid better in more than one way. Receivers can do footwork drills and learn how to measure themselves and their improvement.”
The Academy is among the initial events planned at the Hall of Fame Village. Three fields will open June 1 in the initial phase of a sports complex with two more next year and the remaining four in 2018. The massive development project, which includes a hotel convention center, renovations to the stadium, a fan plaza and more, is expected to be completed in time for the NFL’s centennial.
“We want the Hall of Fame to become the most inspiring place on earth,” said Pete Fierle, the chief of staff and vice president of communications at the hall. “Rich’s passion for this is obvious. The partners we’re bringing in must fully believe in the Hall’s mission. With the Hall of Fame Academy, we’re not just creating an excellent athlete but fulfilling the values you learn from the game.”