By Brendan Hall
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.