In the moments after North Carolina’s 45-34 victory at N.C. State last Saturday, Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels’ coach, received a question about T.J. Logan, the junior running back who’d played his finest game of the season.
Logan had gained 100 yards on six carries, and he had scored touchdowns on two long runs of 40 and 42 yards. In his answer, Fedora praised Logan for “busting it,” and Fedora knew that to be true because he had scientific proof.
Indeed, the degree to which a player is “busting it” is now quantifiable and subject to science. At least it is at UNC, which uses a high-tech GPS system to monitor players’ work loads, speed and levels of exertion during practices.
All of which provided Fedora last weekend with the basis of his assessment of Logan.
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“Every day in practice, I mean, he is busting it,” Fedora said, again. “We keep track of their work capacity and their yardage in the week with the GPS units, and T.J. is always up there – his work capacity is always as high as anybody’s on the field.”
The GPS system UNC uses was designed by an Australian company named Catapult. It works like this: players during practices wear a small vest that looks a little like a sports bra – “they call them all sorts of things,” Lou Hernandez, UNC’s football strength and conditioning coach said with a laugh – that has a small, beeper-like device inside the back with a chip inside of it.
The devices are connected to a satellite that tracks a player’s every move. It records the player’s speed, his work load, his volume, his intensity. It’s all recorded on the device.
After practice ends members of Hernandez’s staff collect the vests, plug the devices into a computer and download that day’s information. Then, after a little while, one of Hernandez’s assistants prints out a report for each player that explains, in the form of raw data, what that player did in practice.
“We get it every day,” Gene Chizik, UNC’s defensive coordinator, said of the reports. “Every day. I’ll have it on my desk after practice.”
Florida State is believed to have been the first college football team to use Catapult’s GPS system, and the Seminoles used it during their run to the national championship in 2013. This is the second season that UNC’s football team has used it.
Go to the Catapult website and toward the bottom it says it’s “the most used secret in sports.” But the secret is out, it seems. Hernandez estimates that about half the football teams in the ACC use Catapult’s GPS tracking system.
Clemson, which is UNC’s opponent in the ACC Championship game on Saturday, uses it. Catapult’s list of clients, according to its website, include Alabama, Notre Dame, LSU, Texas A&M, Nebraska and several professional teams in the NFL, NBA and other leagues.
Different teams have different ways of using the data the system produces, Hernandez said. And the amount of data it produces, he said, is “enormous.”
“It can be very overwhelming,” he said, and it took a while for Fedora and Hernandez to figure out the best way to apply the information in a way they deemed most effective.
At UNC, 30 players in a given practice wear the vests with the GPS devices. The units are spread evenly among different positions and, generally, the team’s most important players – the starters and key backups –are the ones who wear them, so Hernandez and his staff can monitor their work.
The data the devices record allow Fedora and his coaching staff to structure practices and target areas of improvement. It also helps them know when a player is approaching his limit, and when rest can be more beneficial than extra practice reps.
“They were definitely tracking my workload a lot during training camp, because every day I would be really high workloads,” said Elijah Hood, the sophomore running back who has run for 1,280 yards and 16 touchdowns. “And some days they would have to hold me out of certain periods because they didn’t want my workload to be just way over the top compared to what they’re asking for.”
In a world without GPS devices that track just about everything a player does – the kind of world that existed at UNC just three years ago – Hood’s season could have been different. He could have over-exerted himself in the preseason, or during any number of regular-season practices. That’s difficult to do now, though, with the technology he wears on his back every day in practice.
Catapult’s founders developed the technology to help Australian athletes prepare for the 2004 Olympics. Two years later, they created Catapult, and the use of the technology began to spread – first among European soccer teams.
Now it’s on a lot of American college campuses, helping football coaches and strength coaches better understand the athletes they’re working with – when to push them more, when to pull back, when a team needs a lighter day of practice or a more intense day.
Hernandez credits the GPS devices with reducing the Tar Heels’ soft tissue injuries – muscle pulls or strains, for instance – by 60 percent. That’s one of the primary benefits of the technology, Chizik said – the opportunity to enhance player safety.
Before arriving at UNC, Chizik, who was the head coach at Auburn from 2009-12, had no experience with using GPS technology in football. During his final season at Auburn, the technology still hadn’t spread to the degree it has since.
“I love it,” he said. “... Because the game has changed because players are here all year round. So they run in the summer, you run them in the spring – you know, I think it really keeps a great tab on them in terms of their condition.
“It gives you a great idea of when to pull back, because you’re over-working guys, or I can really press them a lot more because we haven’t hit that load where you’ve got to be careful of how much you’re doing.”
Defensively, Chizik said, UNC is about “as healthy as you can probably be after 12 games.” He credits a lot of that to the use of the GPS technology. There’s another aspect to it, too: competitiveness.
Hood, the running back, knows that he has run as fast as 21 miles per hour during practice this season. The team’s top speed belongs to Mack Hollins, the junior receiver. He has topped 23 miles per hour. The fastest guys on the team, Hernandez said, find competition in the data.
“I tell people all the time they can’t run through a school speed zone right now,” Hernandez said, “Because they’re going to end up with a speeding ticket.”
Hernandez knows what he’s talking about because he has the data. It’s science.