By Brad Rudner
The sport of college football is entering a new era.
Over the last 20 years, no sport has undergone more change. From the explosion of the spread and hurry-up offenses to conference realignment and the seemingly ever-changing postseason format, every major program from coast to coast is being forced to adhere to one truth: adapt or get left behind.
For three-plus months in the fall, it's survival of the fittest. If you can make it through the brutal and uncompromising landscape unscathed, chances are you'll be playing an extra game -- or two, starting this year with the new College Football Playoff -- for the ultimate prize in January. But teams don't get to play those games without putting in the work on the practice field during the spring and summer months.
Same thing goes for the weight room, which is where Aaron Wellman, the Director of Strength and Conditioning for the University of Michigan's football team, holds court. Every month of the year, his players will come in and go through workouts with the goal of getting stronger, faster and more physical for the upcoming season.
Just like the culture of the sport, finding the next big thing could give you an added edge over your opponent. To that end, Wellman began researching ways to use technology in order to create a practice structure that was not only more efficient but also smarter.
Wellman and the coaching staff began holding meetings this past January with five different analytics and research-based companies that, at the core, would have a direct impact on how the team conducted its practices. How? By strapping certain players with GPS-synced devices that measure up to 30 different metrics ranging from speed (sprints, distances) to power (collisions). These devices can even tell if a player is putting more weight on one leg or another and by what percent.
"It's a valid and reliable way to monitor the training load of each athlete and to also monitor neuromuscular fatigue," Wellman explains. "Our ultimate goal is to optimize and enhance the performances of all our athletes, but most importantly, we want to keep them healthy and prevent injury."
After conferring with other college and professional teams that use similar technology, Michigan struck an agreement with GPSports. Luckily, the one man that the company absolutely had to win over didn't require a whole lot of convincing.
"When Aaron brought this to me, I could tell it would be a benefit to the health of our student-athletes, which is always our first priority," said Brady Hoke, the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Head Football Coach. "We continue to look for ways to give our team an advantage. We are still learning the best ways to utilize the data, but it has already impacted the way we've structured a couple of practices in camp and we are seeing the positive impact on the field and in the numbers."
The device itself looks like a large pebble. To wear it, players must put on a black, sports bra-like apparatus and fit the unit in the back between the shoulder blades. As its company name suggests, the technology is similar to what you'll find on your cellular phone or in your car.
After each practice, the players that are wearing the devices -- the same ones each day -- turn them in to Wellman. He'll put them in a dock, download all the raw data to a program and attach names to each unit. From there, the information goes to a password-protected web portal wherein the coaches can analyze the session that they just completed. Before the next practice, printed reports are made available and changes are made if they are needed.
Halfway into camp, the data is becoming more meaningful. Yes, there are certain things that need to get done every day in practice, like techniques and tactical work, but this system allows the staff to build better practices and smarter schedules. If the data shows that fatigue is starting to set in and performances are being affected, the coaches might lighten the load to get more rest throughout the day, whether that means that meetings are moved to accommodate a nap period or if wake-up times are an hour later.
This isn't a new concept, but it is to Americans. Over the last decade, the same technology and analytics have been utilized in Australian-rules football, rugby and in English soccer. Wellman estimates that Michigan is only one of 10 to 20 college teams that are using similar systems and expects those that aren't to start very soon.
To take the process even further, the football program will be hiring a full-time sport scientist in the near future, someone who will be charged with processing, collecting and analyzing all the data that streams in and then making recommendations to the coaching staff.
"This is just a starting point for us," Wellman said, mentioning that eventually, the number of units that are being worn will jump from 12 to 45. "It's going to be a big part of what we're going to do moving forward in the next two-to-three years."
Not only are these devices going on the players that have the highest volume of activity but also to those that are recovering from injuries, like sophomore tight end Jake Butt. Nearly six months into his recovery from a torn ACL, Butt is eyeing a return to the field sometime this season. Before he can get there, he'll need to pass eight to 10 tests ranging from the subjective (like how his coaches feel that he looks) to the physical (like change-of-direction drills and single-leg vertical jumps).
Another one of those tests involves the data generated from the device, which Butt has worn throughout his rehab process. Wellman says the team's athletic training staff is keeping a close eye on the data and will use it as a factor in determining when to make the recommendation to the coaching staff that he is ready to play.
"This is the last step for Jake, putting monitors on him to see what his movement looks like on the field" Wellman said. "We all want those tests to say the same thing, which is, 'This guy is ready to be back on the field.'"
At the end of the day, the coaching staff is using this first year to build a database of information. Wellman is cautious to not get too overwhelmed ("The worst thing you can do is start too fast and be paralyzed with data."), but in creating more efficient practices on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the hope becomes that when Saturday rolls around, every player is hitting their peak at the same time.
As Team 135 rolls on with camp, the information will continue to pour in. If it results in more wins on the field and lessens the amount of injuries, then it will unquestionably be one of the best investments that they've ever made.