Notre Dame, Florida State get boost from technology

Chicago Tribune

South Bend, Ind. — Something was wrong with Chris Brown, but nobody knew what. Not Brown, not the Notre Dame coaching staff.

After a promising summer camp, Brown's first three games yielded disappointing results: only four receptions for 35 yards. He was healthy. He just wasn't producing at the level he and the coaches expected.

"We were kind of like, what's happened here?" coach Brian Kelly told the Tribune.

Kelly turned to data from a product the Irish are trying out — a GPS-oriented device called the OptimEye. In that data, Kelly solved the mystery: Brown was tense, and his technique was slacking.

Kelly has outfitted Notre Dame's receivers this season with the cellphone-sized device, which they wear on their backs during games and practices. The device mixes dozens of data points — such as speed, distance, acceleration, torque, impact of getting hit, movement of body parts — in an algorithm to calculate a "player load," which essentially measures how much a player is working.

Brown's player load was consistently half that of the other receivers. That number led Kelly to the film, where he found the solution.

"It wasn't a matter of him not working," Kelly said. "He was dragging his feet. He was really tight and he wasn't fluid like the other guys."

How has Brown done since that discovery? Twelve catches for 147 yards in three games.

"He's playing much faster. He's running much faster," Kelly said. "That was the first time we were like, 'Aha! We have something here where we can really use the data.' “

The world of college football is an ever-evolving arms race to earn a competitive advantage, and Notre Dame has a new weapon in player development. Catapult, the Australian company that makes the OptimEye, has made quite an inroad among American professional and college sports in recent years and has made a believer out of Kelly.

"Everybody has 85 scholarships, so where is that little competitive advantage that you can gain?" Kelly said. "To me, it's player development — it's 'How can you get the most out of your guys?' I'm not looking to revolutionize. I'm just looking to get a little bit more out of Chris Brown."

As part of an effort to help Australia develop Olympic athletes, engineers Shaun Holthouse and Igor van de Griendt, Catapult's founders, worked with the Australian Institute of Sport to develop sensors that tracked athletes' physical exertion. Catapult was formed in 2006 after Australia won 49 medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The company began signing up Australian rules football teams and now boasts several NBA, NFL and college programs among its client base, including the Spurs, the Eagles, Alabama and Oregon

Its first client in North America was Florida State, Notre Dame's opponent Saturday and the most advanced program at using Catapult's technology to evaluate its athletes, according to Boden Westover, a Catapult spokesman.

"A lot of teams jumped on board because of what they've done with it," Westover said. "Most teams don't really know why they're using it yet, to be honest."

On a trip to Australia, Seminoles strength and conditioning coach Vic Viloria and former director of sport science Erik Korem noticed Australian rugby players wearing the device. They brought what they saw back to coach Jimbo Fisher, who signed up with the company.

For a year, Florida State collected baseline data on its players, and in the second season, the Seminoles began acting on the data. That's the usual process for new companies using the technology, Westover said. Notre Dame is just entering a point where it can act on its data, although Kelly said the Irish had some help interpreting its information.

"We cheated. We called Florida State," Kelly said. "We didn't know what the numbers meant and they did (help)."

Fisher credited the company with contributing to the Seminoles' national championship last season, telling CBSsports.com it helped them reduce soft-tissue injuries by 88 percent.

Because of the data Catapult provides, Seminoles coaches could tell if a player was exerting as much force as he normally does. They can tell if a player is fully healthy in his return to play if he is hitting the benchmark numbers again.

And because the device detects all movements — even if a player moves his arm slightly to swat a fly — it can tell if he's favoring one side or another.

"Probably the easiest way to understand it is if you compare it to a Formula One car," Westover said. "You've got the pit crew and the dashboard and they're analyzing everything the car is doing.

With athletes, you put all this money into these guys and you don't know what levels they're up to and when they're starting to break down. Essentially this is like the dashboard."

At Notre Dame, the lacrosse and soccer teams began using the device, followed by the football team. Strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo and assistant Jake Flint have overseen the six devices Notre Dame had for its receivers. After the success in helping Brown, Kelly ordered six more and will outfit the secondary with them.

"We have a tendency in this business when somebody's winning to (copy them)," Longo said. "But this isn't a gimmick or a fad like hot yoga or something like that. It's just a great way to measure what you're already doing and then make good decisions from there."

Catapult's technology won't change how Notre Dame conditions its athletes. Instead it will complement what the program is already doing.

"Players these days with technology, they understand it. It's another avenue they are involved in," Flint said, before adding with a laugh, "And at Notre Dame, we can get whatever we want."

What Kelly wants is what Florida State already has — that sliver of an advantage, that one piece of information that can unlock the key to better coaching his personnel.

"At first I was a bit — I don't want to say resistant — but I wasn't sure of the applicability of Catapult," Kelly said. "For 25 years I had been setting practice schedules and I knew when to taper down to get a team ready, so Catapult to me was like, 'Well, I can do that myself' — until we started to use the device and the numbers started to come back.”

 

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