A whistle, a cell phone, a camper and a coach: UW-W quarterback camps go virtual

By Jeff Angileri
Director of University Communications, UW-W

Warhawk summers are for campers. When people visit the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater this time of year, they normally see thousands of kids engaged in activities at the laboratories, athletic fields, dorms and computer labs. Learning and laughter are everywhere. And then the global pandemic hit.

In our new normal, those special summertime traditions have evolved. The campers and the learning and the laughter are happening in new ways, thanks to a little Warhawk willpower. In the UW-Whitewater Camps and Conferences office, people are making memories —and they aren’t letting a pandemic stand in the way.

One of those online camps is a football skills camp for young quarterbacks created by Warhawk Football Offensive Coordinator and Quarterback Coach Peter Jennings.

“We were tasked to see if we could bridge the gap between a live camp and no camp at all. I talked to Coach Bullis and staff,” said Jennings, referring to Warhawk Football Head Coach Kevin Bullis. “I talked to my wife, and the idea began to come together and I started to think, ‘Hey, this could actually be really pretty good!’”

Jennings was off and running with a keeper. He designed the camp for two age groups: high school players on Tuesdays and youth (grades 1-8) on Thursdays. Campers poured in, attracted by online marketing, a seemingly one-of-a-kind program and the national profile of the six-time national champion Warhawk football program. Most campers joined from Wisconsin and Illinois, but Jennings has seen registrations from Iowa, Minnesota, Wyoming and Florida.

On camp days at 4 p.m., Jennings goes from his home in Whitewater to the basement of the Berezowitz Student Athletic Complex on campus. He plugs his laptop into a projector, and his campers — about 25 of them per session — appear from their homes on a projector screen. Jennings then places his cell phone into a holder rigged to a length of plastic pipe and taped to a chair, for height. 

“There are a lot of uses for athletic tape other than taping ankles,” he said.

The camera points toward a space — also marked with athletic tape — from which Jennings demonstrates throws, fakes, fades, hip movement, footwork and all the other nuances of quarterbacking. In every session he teaches fundamentals of throwing, and he adds a new application or emphasis each time.

“I give them a drill, I teach them the drill, I explain why we’re doing the drill,” said Jennings. “I blow a whistle and they go do that movement. And so I am watching them live, and I just go through and I can say ‘Hey Bobby, great work’; ‘Jimmy, we gotta focus a little more on rotation’; ‘Tommy, nice job.’”

“Then I blow my whistle. I bring them back to the screen and I give them another drill to do and give them the why and the how for that drill, blow my whistle and give them corrections for that drill. We do that for an hour.”

Jennings credits his wife, Kim, for telling him to use the whistle and for valuable feedback as he thought about how to teach the campers. The Jennings have two young children of their own — Mara, 6, and Ben, 7.

“She was the one who said ‘Use the whistle. It’s going to make it more authentic and it’s going to be loud enough to bring kids back and forth.’ She said I should get it into as large an area as possible for myself,” added Jennings. “Being able to go over to the Berezowitz Student Athletic Complex and utilize that basement has been awesome. She helped me tailor it to something that has become pretty successful.”

Jennings said the experience has been a game changer in some unforeseen ways for everyone involved. He can’t be there in person to lift a camper’s elbow or show a camper how to turn a shoulder correctly, so he’s refined his teaching skills. He thinks about precise, descriptive language in ways that will have lasting benefits.

And then there are the campers and the moms, dads, sisters, brothers and friends who catch the balls for campers and record the campers for Jennings to see in real time.

“People are hungry to get to some sense of normalcy,” said Jennings. “Showing up virtually and throwing a football with your dad or your mom feels normal for these kids. And it feels normal for the parents. And that’s huge.”

“The fact that these kids are getting better (as players), that’s icing on the cake,” he added. “This is something that feels right. It feels like a normal summer, and maybe that’s more important than anything.”

The current round of online quarterback skill camps has ended. Information on future camps and the many programs offered by UW-Whitewater Camps and Conferences can be found uww.edu/ce.

And so remember these days, these days of summer. And remember a few words from the legendary Green Bay Packers Coach Lombardi: “The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have.”

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