As football players enter the Illinois weight room, a digital monitor catches their eyes. Skill-position players pause to check the screen and see if they’ve been included in the “speed freaks” club.
Thanks to Illinois’ recent purchase of athletic vests that include a Global Positioning System device to track performances, coaches and athletic trainers are collecting data to help them optimize players’ physical conditioning in practices.
But for some players, it’s simple. It’s all about speed.
“Now I try to run as fast as I can,” said running back Reggie Corbin, whose best practice speed of 20.02 mph this spring put him in a group of nine players who cracked the 20 mph mark. Cornerback Nate Hobbs was the fastest at 21.25 mph.
“It’s always a good competition,” Corbin said. “It gives us a better idea of how we’re doing. Numbers never lie. Someone can talk as much as they want, but the numbers are there.”
The speeds were recorded by the 44 Catapult vests Illinois players wore during spring practice, which wrapped up Wednesday. The Illini are among a growing legion of FBS programs embracing new ways to incorporate technology and analytics. Northwestern, for instance, has used these vests for several years across different sports, including basketball. Notre Dame also uses the technology for multiple sports.
Players wear the vests under their pads; the vests have a pouch for a GPS device to monitor movement and physical output. Catapult’s website says 2,100 teams across 39 sports use its wearable technology product.
“There’s multiple advantages,” Illinois head athletic trainer Jeremy Busch said. “We can look at it from a strength and conditioning side. We can look at it from my side, from an injury prevention side with workloads. Coaches can look at it on the performance side as well.”
A staff member sits at a corner of the field with a laptop next to an antenna that tracks and monitors players — and not just their speed. Catapult records data points such as duration of work, how long players maintain certain capacities of work, distances run, route running and explosiveness off each leg.
The team is creating a database to compare players’ work in the fall.
Since the first snap in football history, coaches have used their instinct to judge players and create routines. Now they have numbers to back up — or dispel — their theories.
“With some coaches it’s: ‘I’ve always done it this way. My grandfather coached, and he did it this way,’ ” said strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez, who noted the Illinois coaching staff has embraced the technology. “I tell people all the time: ‘It’s first and foremost your coaching eye. You have this ability to know that’s a lot or not enough (at practice).’ This is going to help with it.”
Coaches and trainers can use the data not only to motivate players who aren’t reaching their potential, but also to help prevent injuries from overexertion and overtraining at the same capacity.
Trainers take the loads of data points and color-code workouts to help coaches plan for lighter and harder days. Data are broken into a variety of categories so coaches can see a player’s or position group’s workload per minute and compare it to past performance.
“Once we know their top speeds, we can take a percentage,” Busch said. “How much were they working on that top end? Maybe they’re working too high, maybe they’re not working hard enough. It depends on the goals for that week.
“Like any training cycle, you want to make sure you’re peaking these guys’ performances. If we don’t plan that appropriately, we’re not truly taking advantage of what we do on a daily basis.”
They are learning which information is most important to feed to coach Lovie Smith and his coordinators.
Busch said he can use the data to help determine when a player is ready to return from injury. Does he have the same explosiveness as before the injury? Hernandez can also use the information during rehabilitation to see when a player has regained his pre-injury strength.
Hernandez said he used this same technology at his previous job at North Carolina, where the data revealed that players were working nearly as hard in warm-ups as the game, meaning they were exerting the same energy for five quarters.
“We know the game is tough. We know it’s demanding,” he said. “You have to have days like that on the field to get better. However, what we also know is that your body can’t sustain that intensity for numerous competitive outings in a week and a season.
“It’s not about backing off. It’s not about doing less. It’s about being smarter in how you do things. That’s what the technology does for us.”