The Innovator

Every offseason, countless high school coaches make the leap to college, or even NFL, staffs. Why are they such attractive additions? A peek at what the University of Arizona’s new, tech-minded offensive analyst John Marinelli built at a southern Connecticut high school lends some insight.

Some jumps from high school ranks to col­lege staffs are sub­tle, like an upstart young whip head­ing to a near­by Division II or III col­lege to infuse some ener­gy into a tired pro­gram. Others, such as a head coach at a revered high school pro­gram join­ing a major Division I staff, are seismic.

John Marinelli’s leap this sum­mer, from south­ern Connecticut pow­er­house Greenwich High School to offen­sive ana­lyst at the University of Arizona, falls under the lat­ter. This move is the prod­uct of a rela­tion­ship that’s been fos­tered over the last decade with offen­sive coor­di­na­tor Noël Mazzone. He’s the pilot of Kevin Sumlin’s cel­e­brat­ed Air Raid” scheme that made a Heisman Trophy win­ner out of Johnny Manziel, and who’s now tasked with revi­tal­iz­ing for­mer Heisman fron­trun­ner Khalil Tate after a rough 2018.

An inquis­i­tive type, Marinelli found him­self pick­ing Mazzone’s brain quite a bit the last few years. 

It’s incred­i­ble. We’d share ideas, I’d bounce a lot of stuff off of him, I appre­ci­at­ed his men­tor­ship,” Marinelli said. He’s some­one I great­ly respect in my pro­fes­sion, some­one who cares a lot about high school coaches.” 

But the ques­tion remains — what makes so many of these coach­es attrac­tive to a col­lege staff?

These things are always in the eye of the behold­er, but a look at the prac­tice atmos­phere Marinelli cul­ti­vat­ed dur­ing his four years run­ning the Cardinals’ pro­gram might give us some answers. Today’s most for­ward-think­ing high school coach­es are lever­ag­ing the pro-lev­el data and tech­nol­o­gy avail­able, cre­at­ing a col­lege or even NFL-like atmos­phere for teenagers. These play­ers are there­fore bet­ter pre­pared to con­tribute right away at the next lev­el. For the Cardinals, this set­up was some­thing like equal parts Sean McVay and Chip Kelly.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Greenwich Football

Greenwich’s 2018 cam­paign was a super­son­ic rein­force­ment of the prin­ci­ples Marinelli start­ed with when he first took the job in 2015 — play fast, then play faster. The Cardinals allowed just 54 points total over their 13 – 0 cam­paign, pitch­ing six shutouts, includ­ing an 84 – 0 mar­gin over the final eight quar­ters of the sea­son. Offensively, they aver­aged near­ly 45 points per game and near­ly sev­en yards per play, com­plet­ing 60 per­cent of their pass­es (just a thread over the Mendoza line, as our part­ners at X&O Labs spelled out).

The sea­son end­ed with Marinelli’s sec­ond vic­to­ry of 2018 over near­by New Canaan (coached by his father Lou, the state’s all-time win­ningest high school coach) in a 34 – 0 shutout, giv­ing the Cardinals their first state cham­pi­onship since 2007.

John’s Cardinals aimed to play as fast as pos­si­ble — some­times faster than the chain crew can set up a new first down. The stat­ed goal was to get the ball snapped in 13 sec­onds. Plays would get called in a series of hand sig­nals, or some­times a mere one-word association. 

Marinelli is no Ben McAdoo, or any oth­er NFL coach whose playsheet resem­bles some­thing like a din­er menu. His play­book — which could bloat to near­ly 10,000 plays when fac­tor­ing in all the dif­fer­ent twists and stems — was whit­tled down to some­times as lit­tle as 12 base plays for game nights, with a num­ber of vari­eties stem­ming from those plays.

45
Points per Game
6
Yards per Play
60%
Completion Rate

Sounds tax­ing, right? But that’s noth­ing com­pared to how prac­tices were run, a pace some­where between fre­net­ic and all-out chaot­ic. Practice scripts were acute­ly reg­i­ment­ed and orga­nized, with the play­ers them­selves per­pet­u­al­ly in motion, nev­er in the same drill for more than 5 – 10 minutes.

Our prac­tices are high tem­po. They’re fast paced. They’re well thought out,” Marinelli said back in the spring. As a staff, every­body has to know what they’re doing. I hate when peo­ple are stand­ing around at practice.”

The idea, far from unique in coach­ing lex­i­con, is to make the game come easy on Friday nights. But Marinelli goes to excep­tion­al lengths. Wearable tech­nol­o­gy may not be allowed on the field dur­ing games, but there’s noth­ing that says you can’t break out every gad­get pos­si­ble dur­ing prac­tices to accom­plish his goal.

Where’s the game going? Our part­ners at X&O Labs show you the lat­est trends, and how you can adapt.

Download the Report

On NFL Sundays, coach­es have long com­mu­ni­cat­ed direct­ly to the quar­ter­back through their head­set (and as of this past decade, one des­ig­nat­ed defen­sive play­er). Marinelli mic’d up his scout quar­ter­back for prac­tices to get in the play call faster. This often results in the young sig­nal-callers in his pro­gram pick­ing up the game, and the nuances of var­i­ous offens­es, quicker.

The age of no-hud­dle offense has spawned a rich cor­nu­copia of cre­ative ways to call plays quick­ly, from indi­vid­u­al­ly-tai­lored play strips to giant sand­wich boards with var­i­ous logos (some of the car­toon­ish vari­ety). At Greenwich, the coach­ing staff would deploy as many as two dozen Android phones on the scout team, to be insert­ed in the playstrip wrist­bands, with the screens call­ing up the plays through an app. Most play­ers end up wear­ing these on their belt loops for quick­er reading.

Filming prac­tices is a stan­dard among many of the nation’s top pro­grams. But near­ly a half-dozen cam­eras could be seen at Greenwich prac­tices, and not just your stan­dard wide/​tight vari­ety. A drone would fly over­head, there’d be a cam­era affixed from atop a mov­ing pole, and a sta­tion­ary cam­era atop a rock wall from behind one of the end zones. 

Programs invest­ed in this kind of a set­up often find that all this tech­nol­o­gy adds up on Friday nights, enabling them to play and make changes at light­ning speed. This pace is ardu­ous to keep up with. The game has been mov­ing fast for decades at the col­lege lev­el, and that influ­ence is grow­ing among the more youth­ful NFL coaches. 

For the high school lev­el, the ben­e­fits add up. With live side­line replay tech­nol­o­gy so read­i­ly avail­able, teams that wait until half­time to make their adjust­ments often find that they’re too late. Marinelli saw the com­ing tide and chose to make it a footrace, fight­ing speed with more speed. The results spoke for themselves.

Our defen­sive coor­di­na­tor will be the first to tell you he hat­ed going fast in prac­tice,” Marinelli said ear­li­er this sum­mer. But over the course of time, real­iz­ing what it can do in a game for us, he’s gone com­plete­ly 180. He loves it now.”

And when it came to game night, every­thing seemed a lit­tle slow­er. The big-screen TV was there on the side­line. So were the iPads, ready to show them their mis­takes as soon as they come off the field. And there was no sense of panic.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Greenwich Football

Marinelli knows if you aren’t trained to play fast defen­sive­ly, it can be hard to rec­og­nize for­ma­tions and ten­den­cies. But by play­ing fast in prac­tice, and get­ting used to find­ing posi­tions quick­ly, rec­og­niz­ing the offense feels like sec­ond nature.

How well did all that con­trolled chaos pay off on the defen­sive side of the ball Friday nights? In 2018, the Cardinals put up eye-pop­ping sta­tis­tics off the edge and in the sec­ondary, rack­ing up team totals of 57 sacks, 60 tack­les for loss and 20 inter­cep­tions over the 13-game season.

Marinelli’s biggest inspi­ra­tion for how he built his work­flow comes from his father Lou, who has a career record (and cur­rent Connecticut record) of 350 – 106-7. Adversaries on the field, the father and son are a lab­o­ra­to­ry off of it, con­stant­ly hit­ting each oth­er up for new ways to lever­age the tech­nol­o­gy and data avail­able in today’s game.

Coaches, Marinelli reminds us, love to have all the bells and whis­tles. And as an ear­ly adopter of many tech­nolo­gies that are now the new nor­mal for high school foot­ball, Marinelli is con­stant­ly on the look­out for that next poten­tial game-chang­ing inno­va­tion. He’ll often spend the first three months of a cal­en­dar year explor­ing the mar­ket, look­ing at what’s out there and what makes sense.

57
Sacks
60
Tackles for Loss
20
Interceptions

But if there’s one thing Lou has taught him over every­thing else, it’s that not every­thing works. Not every­thing is what it seems. Sometimes it’s bet­ter not to force some­thing on your kids or your coach­es. It real­ly is okay to occa­sion­al­ly say no to the new best innovation.

He says that’s one of his father’s strongest traits — know­ing when to say no. We bounce ideas off each oth­er con­stant­ly. We influ­ence each oth­er equally.”

Marinelli’s advice? If you’re going to use it, if you’re going to make your team learn a new piece of tech­nol­o­gy, it had bet­ter be there in the long term. If you’re not going to use it, or if you’re going to have to com­plete­ly rein­vent your­self? Move on.