How Florida State Hacked Football's Fitness Code

Men’s Fitness

How did the reigning NCAA champs return to football prominence? With the help of the most elaborate and expensive player-monitoring system in the sport—an advanced, coordinated effort that has drastically improved conditioning.

Rashad Greene, a 6-foot, 180-pound speedster from Albany, GA, may very well end his collegiate career as the greatest wide receiver in the history of Florida State University football.

No humble feat, of course. FSU is a perennial powerhouse and gridiron talent factory that in recent years has churned out top NFL receivers like Kelvin Benjamin—a first-round draft pick this year—as well as big names like Peter Warrick, Laveranues Coles, and three-time Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin.

In 2013, Greene caught 76 balls, the second-highest total ever in a single Seminoles season, and snagged nine receptions for 147 yards in the 2014 national championship game against Auburn. The Seminoles won. This season, Greene is primed to break FSU’s all-time records for total receiving yards, career receptions, and receiving touchdowns—the first two are records that have stood since 1968.

But, for all his accolades, promise, and well-earned swagger around FSU’s practice field, today the 21-year-old nursing major with the quiet temperament is just another player who’s slacking his way through a workout.

And there’s no way he can hide it.

Greene, along with the rest of the Seminoles “skill guys”—speedy wide receivers and defensive backs—is going through a series of grueling conditioning sprints on the turf at FSU’s new $15 million indoor facility, near the end of the team’s spring practices in Tallahassee. Vic Viloria, a stout former linebacker who’s now the team’s head strength and conditioning coach, oversees the drill.

Instead of focusing solely on the players, however, his staffers are glued to an array of computer monitors that display a constantly updating stream of colorful numbers, bar graphs, and pie charts. Some of the numbers indicate that Greene might be dogging it a little.

The information comes from a sensor about half the size of an iPhone 4, which Greene—along with every other player—wears on his back under the uniform, held in place by a triangle-shape “sports bow” secured at the neck and under the armpits.

Developed by an Australian sports science company, Catapult, the sensor tracks more than 100 metrics, including distance, speed, acceleration, deceleration, and heart rate. It also monitors change in direction using 3-D accelerometers, 3-D magnetometers (essentially digital compasses), 3-D gyroscopes, a GNSS antenna for GPS, and a processor with a memory unit. As it collects data, the sensor transmits numbers wirelessly to the coaches’ sideline command center. There the computers use algorithms that factor in the players’ vitals and other biographical info, then elegantly format the information into readable—and actionable—graphs and charts.

At Florida State, the data is sacred. This is a football program that finished in the top 5 of the Associated Press poll every year from 1987 to 2000, routinely steamrolling its opposition in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But it struggled through a slump in the 2000s, in the twilight of the tenure of long-running head coach Bobby Bowden.

Recently, though, the team has surged back to prominence under new head coach Jimbo Fisher, a longtime Bowden acolyte who took over the top job in 2010. The data never lies, argues Fisher, who credits it for helping guide the Seminoles back to their rightful place atop the world of college football. “It’s helping me manage the team in terms of where we want to peak during the year,” he says, speaking at the pace of a hyperactive child.

On the practice field, Viloria notices that Greene is slowing up a few yards before the end of each sprint. In the past, Viloria would’ve had only his eyes and intuition for such a split-second observation, but now the sensors offer figures to back it up.

Greene, like the rest of his teammates, knows not to question the data; so when Viloria shakes his head and tells him the last sprint didn’t count—he slacked off in the final stretch—Greene doesn’t argue or hang his head in complaint. He merely lines up and does another 100-yard gasser, running full-bore to the very end.

He looks over at Viloria, whose readout confirms the effort. Greene hits the showers as the coach smiles, another training session altered slightly but significantly, another national championship a fraction closer. 

Welcome to the new age of football, where real-time information influences a head coach’s practice decisions on a daily basis, and every athlete gets an individualized training program intended to maximize potential and reduce injury. And the Seminoles, headed by the irrepressible Fisher, are leading the way.

“FSU football was the first major college football program to really adopt the Catapult technology,” says Ethan Owens, a sports scientist for the company. “We created it, but they had to figure out how to take it and use it to benefit FSU football.”

The Seminoles became Catapult’s first U.S. client in 2011, a year after Fisher took over the team. Viloria and his then assistants, Erik Korem and Joe Danos, pitched him on the Catapult devices after seeing them in action at a practice of an Australian rules football team, the Greater Western Sydney Giants.

Catapult was founded in 2001 by engineers Shaun Holthouse (now the company’s CEO) and Igor van de Griendt. The duo developed a unique athlete-tracking microtechnology, and eventually found themselves working with several Aussie pro football teams.

Viloria and Korem, fascinated by what they learned from watching the Catapult system in action, brought the idea back to their head coach. Fisher, always searching for an edge in the hypercompetitive world of elite college football, approved the program.

The first year, FSU used 30 GPS sensors for the entire team. Initially, Viloria says, the data was little more than noise, what with the small sample size and the fact that the Australian sports scientists who designed Catapult didn’t know what stats to cull for an American football team. Each sport, they argue, comes with sport-specific movements and conditioning drills that produce wear and tear on the body in different ways.

But as FSU gathered more data—adding additional sensors each year, topping out at 80 this season (at the cost of more than $100,000 a year)—they began to develop profiles for different types of players. Previously, Viloria could only theorize that a series of sprints or route-running drills would have a different effect on Greene (6', 178 pounds) than on Benjamin (6'5", 234 pounds).

“If I take two guys with different body types out on the field, well, shit—the same workload is going to be a lot more stress on one than on the other,” Viloria says. “We knew it before, we just couldn’t prove it.”