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Sonny Dykes' secret weapon that helped fuel TCU football's dream season

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LOS ANGELES — Quentin Johnston’s parents were annoyed. They were taking their son, TCU’s star catcher, to dinner in Fort Worth, but his attention was elsewhere. His eyes were fixed on his phone.

“What are you watching on your phone?” ” they asked.

“I’m watching a movie right now,” he said.

He didn’t need to be on TCU premises. He didn’t need to sit down and spend an hour or more studying. He could squeeze a few minutes when he had a few minutes. Or even when he technically didn’t have time to study film.

Johnston has been locked into an app called Just Play that allows him to do more than just watch a movie. It’s the same app that helped him learn that offensive coordinator Garrett Riley merged with head coach Sonny Dykes when they took over ahead of a season that has become unlike anything TCU has never known.

It’s the same app he’s been using this week to study Georgian defense reconnaissance reports. It’s the same app TCU coaches use to add new rides to the playbook week by week. Johnston and the rest of the offense can view the game plan as soon as it’s uploaded, study the X’s and O’s and/or video of other teams executing the concept that coaches have uploaded to the platform.

When practice begins, they can be one step ahead of coaches trying to explain things on the practice field. TCU went 5-7 a season ago and added a new coaching staff, a new offense and a new defense.

The Horned Frogs’ secret weapon to help make a smooth transition that helped an unlikely national title run? The app that’s on every player’s and coach’s phone.

“It’s huge,” quarterback Max Duggan said. “It helped a lot in fall camp when we couldn’t meet, but we’re home seeing concepts that we were going to execute the next day. It’s an achievement for us and a benefit for us.


Just Play Sports Solutions was instrumental in TCU’s dream season and their chance to play for a national title on Monday night. (Courtesy of Just Play)

Austin Barone remembers watching a scene unfold over and over again when he was a kicker for Kansas under Charlie Weis. He walked to class on campus and saw each of his classmates working on a laptop or tablet.

When his teammates arrived at the Kansas Football Center and went to meetings, they were glued to their phones. Upon entering, they would swap their phones for thick binders and sit with the coaches for an hour or two to discuss scouting reports or review practices or new games for that week’s game plan.

Once the meetings were over, the binders returned to the shelf and the players went straight back to their phones.

“It didn’t make sense,” Barone said, “that the medium through which this generation of athletes consumed their content was not the medium through which coaches got their information.”

So in 2014, Barone and co-founder Andy Wachter, an older friend Barone knew from their hometown of Pittsburg, Kansas, who played basketball for Wichita State, decided to change that.

“The idea was, ‘How can we create a unique player experience that centralizes everything in one place and has everything at your fingertips, studies at your own pace and in the space that suits you best? “said Barone.

Just Play Sports Solutions was born. Barone and Wachter developed the concept in 2014 and spent most of 2015 making it a reality with a few small customers tinkering with a beta version of the app. Wachter left his job as a senior developer for Sony Pictures Television in November 2015, and they worked to have a working, shippable product by January 1, 2016.

After the 2017 season, SMU hired Sonny Dykes as their head coach. In January 2018, he hired Anthony Crespino away from Northwestern as his chief of staff. Crespino had worked with the app at Northwestern and pitched the idea to Dykes. Dykes was interested and they arranged a meeting.

“He had to merge his system with the (then-OC Rhett Lashlee) system,” Barone said. “How do you do that in a way and broadcast that to the coaches and the players while everyone is recruiting and you have things going on? How do you make something very inefficient effective?

“It ultimately came down to player value.”

SMU was an early client of Just Play, a list that now includes several Ivy League schools, UCLA, Kansas and Coastal Carolina. …and TCU.

“It did us good. It is a great educational tool and teaching method for our parents. It’s something that’s been part of our success,” Dykes said. “It’s a way to gain an advantage and have a little edge. We’re into it all, whether it’s a bit of analytics or an app that enables communication between coaches and players. Playbook stuff, a way to embed playbook into video. Any little advantage you can get makes a huge difference when they add up. We do anything to gain an inch and those inches add up.

It became a particularly useful tool during the COVID-19 pandemic when players left their campuses and returned home for months as the sport came to a halt. Coaches could always help players study their playbooks and plans and keep their minds sharp when their bodies were often away from team facilities.

“It’s pretty cool, especially for me,” said running back Emari Demercado, a native of Inglewood, Calif., who stayed for a fifth season at TCU in 2022 and ran for 150 yards in the win in Horned Frogs semi-final against Michigan. “I’m a visual learner, and being able to see these things and learn about them has been really helpful.”

Inputting game manuals, scouting reports, facilities, and anything else a coaching staff needs can take up to two weeks initially, which Just Play charges as a start-up fee. Depending on need and access to a program, it can cost between $10,000 and $50,000 per year for the service.

But when Dykes took over at TCU ahead of the 2022 season, it only took Just Play an hour to move everything Dykes needed in the platform from SMU to TCU, barely longer than enough to drive between the two campuses.

“It helps our kids a lot,” running backs coach Anthony Jones said. “It’s a great tool, so we don’t need to have guys coming back to the office at all hours of the night.”

It became a daily tool for Johnston, who quickly got used to living in the app.

“It helped us a lot,” Johnston said. “The fact that we joined and wanted to learn more and grow as fast as possible with a new coaching staff helped us a lot. I probably spend a whole working week there. If I do a 9-5 at a job in a movie theater, that’s roughly how long I’ve been there. I used this app.

It’s hard to quantify precisely how much the app is responsible for TCU’s unlikely debut under Dykes, but it made the transition much easier. And in the era of the transfer portal, it only becomes more useful. When a player commits to a new school, they can access their new playbook, facilities, and practice movie as quickly as they can download it and log into the app.

“They don’t have a year or two to develop,” Barone said. “These players need to level up faster.”

With Just Play, this process can happen much faster. And the same goes when a new coach arrives on the staff. Often the rest of the staff can be all over America on the recruiting trail without having the time to teach what a coach needs to learn and start teaching their players. With just one app, this process is simplified.

“It allows them to be effective as a coaching staff. They spend less time doing paperwork. Their coaches coach and recruit,” said John Reagan, a longtime college coach who was the offensive coordinator at Kansas when Barone was with the Jayhawks and now works with the company. “That’s how you get better.”

Just Play is still a young company with a relatively small customer list. Watching one of those clients – and a coach who was one of their first users – have an unlikely run to the national championship in a dream season during his freshman year at a new school has been a dream in itself.

“It’s amazing. I’m so happy for them and proud to have had a part or a part in it,” Barone said. “It’s amazing, and I feel fulfilled just playing our part and trying to help them win this thing.”

As the company looks to expand, nothing says better publicity than what will be on the field Monday night at SoFi Stadium.

(Sonny Dykes and Zach Marcheselli top photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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