FSU rides GPS technology to title

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was hot and it was muggy and it was a Friday in the middle of summer, all of which should've been enough to strangle any enthusiasm from a group of Florida State's skill-position players running through offseason drills with the team's strength-and-conditioning staff last week. But as freshman tailback Dalvin Cook eased to a stop after an obviously impressive 40-yard sprint, a mad scientist on the sideline with his face buried in a laptop had everyone's attention.

The man is Chris Jacobs, an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist tasked with monitoring every movement the Seminoles make in practice and in the weight room. Jacobs had worked as a propulsion engineer with the space program before government cutbacks forced him out of the job, but a timely meeting with a member of Florida State's booster club brought him here.

The players call him "Rocket Man." Jacobs' computer is fueled by data that arrive in real time, courtesy of GPS monitors the players wear in specially designed straps across their chests -- sports bras the team has renamed "bros" -- that track everything from acceleration rates to heart rates and, most important to the dozens of Seminoles patiently waiting for official results, speed.

Twenty-two point eight, Jacobs confirms, and history is made. Cook's top speed during his 40-yard dash -- 22.8 mph -- pushed him past veteran receiver Rashad Greene for the team's best mark, and the other players quickly offered congratulations to the rookie. Greene, too, was impressed, but also inspired.

For players who just won a national championship by setting offensive records and winning every game by an average of nearly 40 points, this is the value of those GPS devices. They provide the benchmark for a juggernaut for which the biggest challenge comes by competing against itself.

"He beat my record," Greene said. "So I've got to go get him on Monday."

If the players see the monitoring system mostly as a souped-up speedometer, Florida State's coaching staff knows better. For the coaches, it's the technology that has undercut conventional wisdom by providing immediate feedback on every facet of a player's exertion on the field, opening the door to a new way of running practice and designing a program.

"It's not the reason you win," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "But it takes a lot of the guesswork out of how your team is feeling, how individuals are performing and how you moderate practice."

Four years ago, Erik Korem and Joe Danos, who were FSU assistants at the time, brought the idea to Fisher after seeing the devices used by an Australian rules football team. The Australian company that makes them, Catapult Sports, had never had an American football client, but Fisher was quickly sold on the possibilities of designing highly specialized training programs for his athletes that promised increased production and fewer injuries.

"He knew at some point in time, we were going to be ready to face the best of the best, and we had to be a little bit different," head strength coach Vic Viloria said. "His little bit different turned out to be really, really impressive."

Still, there were some immediate concerns. The GPS monitors aren't cheap. Florida State began with 30, which Catapult rented to the team for about $25,000 per year, according to the school's records. In the wake of the Seminoles' national title in January, the team has expanded its use to 95 monitors beginning this spring.

The cost is dwarfed by the sheer scope of information the devices provide. Each GPS monitor returns about 1,000 unique data points per second, which for 95 players practicing for a few hours a day amounts to an overwhelming amount of information for coaches to dissect. Florida State now employs two assistants working full-time hours -- Jacobs and Kratik Malhotra, a data analyst with a degree in electronics engineering -- just to sift through the numbers.

But the most immediate concern was that Florida State was entering uncharted waters. There was no instruction manual for how to apply the devices' output toward American football and no baseline for success.

"We had to educate ourselves on what we were really looking at," Fisher said. "There's a lot of learning. It's not like they print it out and say, 'Do this.'"

The first two years were largely trial and error, a time to collect data and test assumptions. As Jacobs explained, the staff "stepped on a lot of land mines" early on.

Catapult offered help in understanding the data, but it was up to Florida State to decide how to use it. That took time.

"It's an investment in patience more than anything," said Gary McCoy, one of Catapult's sports scientists based in the U.S. Once a plan was in place, however, the results were immense.

Florida State's run to a national championship last year hinged greatly on an unusually low number of injury casualties, which Fisher hardly chalks up to luck. With information gleaned from the GPS devices, Florida State virtually eliminated soft-tissue injuries -- muscle pulls and strains -- and Fisher adjusted the team's practice schedules to reduce midweek workload and ensure his team peaked on Saturdays. The more FSU's coaches learned about the data delivered by the GPS systems, the more the team's conditioning and practices could be tailored to the specific needs of each player.

As Florida State unraveled the potential of the GPS system, others have been quick to follow suit. Five of the Seminoles' assistants have been hired away, including Korem, now with Kentucky, and Danos, now a strength coach with the NFL's New York Giants. There are at least 14 NFL teams using the technology, and a small cadre of affluent college programs have followed suit.

But although they all have access to Catapult's hardware, none has perfected the recipe for using the data quite like Florida State.

"We're OK talking about this," Viloria said, "because everyone else is just learning how to turn the things on."

Jacobs' office is situated in a hallway that bisects Florida State's recently renovated locker room and its state-of-the-art weight room. On a desk next to his computer sit rows of GPS devices; lights flickering like slot machines while they charge. On a white board hanging from the wall, complex algorithms are sketched out in red ink.

"I've got all sorts of goodies in my head I've already started rolling on," Jacobs said. "It's what we nerd types do."

Of course, the transition from vector curls on a white board to concise reports on Fisher's desk is a crucial ingredient in using the information Florida State is collecting on its players, and the language of rocket scientists doesn't easily translate to coachspeak. Viloria acts as the interpreter. He has made small tweaks, such as converting the output from metric to standard measurements, and has developed complex formulas to help coaches turn the myriad data into concise goals for the coming day's practice.

But although he's a staunch advocate for the GPS systems now, Viloria was hardly an easy convert. After 15 years training football players, Viloria knew how to coach athletes without spreadsheets, and letting math nerds behind the curtain of the jock culture was anathema to the old guard.

"I didn't want to tell a coach that's been doing something for 30 years that he's wrong," Viloria said. "I didn't want to find out that what I'd been doing was wrong."

As it turned out, the GPS devices had the opposite effect. The data didn't uncover any stunning secrets but instead gave Viloria the evidence he needed to better deploy plans he already had embraced. Each day after practice, players drop their monitors off to be downloaded. Jacobs and Malhotra sift through the output and filter out the most significant numbers -- max speeds, total distance, player workload, high-impact change of direction and myriad other measurables -- creating reports that illustrate the physical cost of that day's practice.

Those numbers are passed along to Viloria, who translates the information to Fisher, who then lays out his expectations for the next day's practice. Together, Viloria and Fisher create a detailed plan for each period of each practice using the metrics they've established through years of data collection. For the always-demanding head coach, that often means scaling back what he asks from his players.

"It's against a lot of the thinking you do as a coach," Fisher said. "But the results talk to you as if it's a doctor."

Two years ago, Fisher was troubled by an obvious gap between Greene's routinely impressive practice performances and the receiver's inconsistent numbers on game days. He wanted answers, so he pressed his conditioning staff. It turned out the problem wasn't with Greene. It was with the practices. Greene was Florida State's most refined receiver, so when Fisher would grow agitated with poor routes or dropped balls by other players, he would ask Greene to illustrate the proper form. Again and again, Greene would run a route or catch a pass, and his workload mounted. The GPS device offered clear-cut data that showed Greene was simply doing too much.

Fisher responded by lightening Greene's reps on Wednesdays and Thursdays to ensure a productive Saturday. "My legs were with me in every game last year," said Greene, who set career highs with 76 catches, 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013.

Little changes in the practice routine can have massive effects on the bottom line of player health, Viloria said. Running laps used to be punishment for poor performance, but now Florida State's staff understood that extra work was just as likely to create more problems the next day.

Of course, the flip side is true, too. As much as players are eager to see results of sprints at practice, the GPS devices can quickly expose those who are slacking. Viloria gets the data in real time and lets coaches know when it's time to crack the whip. In strength training, Viloria said, it's easy to test a player's limits and prescribe a routine. On the practice field, however, effort often was measured by simply asking a player how he felt and recovery times were set uniformly for everyone on the field.

"Historically, there was no way to get a max for what a typical Tuesday is [at practice]," Viloria said. "Now we can do that for every single athlete we have."

This summer's new arrivals at Florida State will get their introductions to the rocket scientist and the GPS monitors this week, and the staff has a unique greeting in mind.

"We're going to make them run," Jacobs said. Coaches will monitor each new freshman to get baselines to prescribe training routines and compare against future results. The process, Jacobs said, has been refined to a science at Florida State.

McCoy was at a meeting with a professional basketball team in New York last week when he got the question he always gets from prospective clients. They want to know who's using the data the best, and McCoy's answer is always Florida State. From the prescriptive practice plans to the unique design of their "bros," FSU's deployment of the technology is the gold standard, having taken Catapult's basic analytics and expanded upon it by leaps and bounds.

"It's their secret sauce," McCoy said. "If they continue to scout well and they continue to use this model, they're going to build a dynasty out of this. There's no question."

But Florida State isn't interested in simply continuing with its model. It's working every day to build upon it. Beyond the reams of data sent along to the coaching staff, Jacobs is compiling mountains of information for side projects. He calls it his "black ops."

He's working on a formula to identify players who are at risk for concussions; a potentially monumental advancement for a sport whose very future is threatened by the risk of head injuries. Although the GPS devices are banned from use during games, it is those kinds of advancements that could persuade the NCAA to reverse course.

Fisher said that the devices have already saved a half dozen of his players from heat stroke and that the personalized practice plans allow athletes to stay sharp when their focus turns to academics, too.

"This has been a total culture change," Viloria said. "For [Fisher] to do this, it's beyond cutting edge. He's changed the game."

Fisher has toed the line between championing the progress and protecting his trade secrets, but Florida State has clearly benefited from the emerging hype. Recruits are impressed; the NFL has taken notice; and a program that was languishing in stale traditions five years ago is at the forefront of a brave new world in college football.

For Greene, however, the formula is still pretty simple. The rocket scientist with the laptop is tracking his every move, but it's still Greene who gets to feed the machine.

"We see Rocket Man every day on the field," Greene said, "and we can't wait to hear his voice."