Editor’s note: This feature appears in the latest issue of Tiger Rag Extra, out on newsstands this week. To find a copy in Baton Rouge, visit www.tigerrag.com/extra. To buy a copy for yourself or as a gift to be delivered via mail, visit www.tigerrag.com/subscribe.
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onte Jackson doesn’t need to know the numbers to know how fast he is. LSU’s sophomore cornerback doubles as a sprinter on the track team in the spring. He’s got a 4.24 40 yard dash and a 6.63 60 meter sprint to his name. Not a single teammate has even challenged him to a race since his arrival last fall. His speed is unquestioned.
But sometimes, when he’s really turned the burners on in a game, he lets his curiosity get the better of him. That’s when he finds LSU strength coach Tommy Moffitt in the locker room after a game, and poses a simple question: How fast was that?
“I’ll ask if I knew on that one play I ran my full speed,” Jackson says. “Then, I’ll come after the game and ask. But if I knew I didn’t have many chances, I don’t ask about it.”
Jackson was one of 20 Tigers to top 22 miles per hour in the first two games of the Ed Orgeron era. If that seems like a high number — to have nearly two dozen players who could be ticketed for speeding in a school zone on foot — that’s because it is. Only two Tigers topped the mark in LSU’s first four games.
Turns out, Orgeron’s decision upon taking over as head coach to shorten practices and lengthen film sessions wasn’t on a mere whim. He had scientific data backing a calculated call. He repeated, “One team, one heartbeat” – and he knew the very measure of that heartbeat. He had his finger on the literal pulse of his players, thanks to a small monitor on each of their chests.
FOR SIX YEARS, the punting duties at LSU have been the responsibility of Australians. Brad Wing began the reign of Oz in LSU’s special teams units in 2011. Jamie Keehn subsequently took over for three seasons, before passing the torch to the current Aussie punter, Josh Growden.
But the most impactful Australian import to infiltrate the walls of the LSU football ops building arrived around the same time as Wing, and it has never kicked a ball.
It was five or six years ago, by Moffitt’s estimate, that Australian company Catapult approached LSU to gauge its interest in a line of athlete tracking products. The product of two Australian government initiatives — the Australian Institute of Sports and the Cooperative Research Centres — Catapult was co-founded by CRC researchers Shaun Holthouse and Igor van de Griendt. The pair had spearheaded efforts to take evidence-based scientific study of athletic performance from the lab to the field and the court through wearable sensors, capable of measuring an athlete’s vitals and organizing that data into applicable knowledge.
Its products, at the time they approached Moffitt, were big in Europe, but had yet to catch on stateside. Moffitt, always looking for ways to give his athletes an edge, saw an opportunity.
“No one in college athletics was using it,” he says. “Us and Florida State were the only ones. The first couple of years, the NCAA didn’t even know it was being used.”
Today, the technology is ubiquitous. Five or six companies, Moffitt says, market it to hundreds of clients. But that doesn’t make it any less useful. LSU has moved on from Catapult and now uses Polar, whose monitors rest on the hearts of every football player in every workout, practice, and game.
“They combined their knowledge of heart rate tracking with GPS tracking,” says Moffitt. “It’s a good product.”
Its uses are only as limited as the imagination of the professionals utilizing it. For Moffitt, the primary variable to monitor is athlete workload, which he divides into two areas: physical load, the amount of stress the heart is under; and mechanical load, the amount of work done by the muscular system.
“It gives you an idea of the amount of work players are doing in practices, games, competitions, or workouts,” Moffitt says.
All of the data yielded from the monitors uploads to a digital interface, through which Moffitt can cross reference all kinds of variables – average and peak heart rate, average and maximum velocity, acceleration and deceleration, among others – to know how each athlete is performing relative to his or her baselines.
“You’re able to cross reference all these variables to determine the stress and adaptability of the organism,” Moffitt says. “It tells you if your team is fresh or tired or adapting to the training load or not adapting to the training load.”
And before Orgeron took over, the Tigers were not adapting to the training load. Under Les Miles, practices were longer and more intense. His 2015 team began the season like bats out of hell, racing out of the gates to a 7-0 start. But by November, they had broken down, like their predecessors – 10 of Miles’ final 15 losses came after Halloween.
“We feel like we’ve worn down (in the past),” says Moffitt. “The body only has a certain capacity to do work. It doesn’t matter what sport it is – football, tennis or marathons. You only have so many marathons in your body per year. A pitcher only has so many pitches in his arm per year. (LSU trainer) Jack (Marucci) and I felt like we wore down, just from the toll of all the work we did in the past took on our bodies.”
Orgeron took that knowledge to heart. When he took over, he drastically reduced LSU’s in-season practice workload. Mondays, once sessions of 80 plays, became 30 plays, maximum, shorter in length but more intense in nature. According to Moffitt, citing data from Polar, LSU spent 66 percent less time on the field in Orgeron’s first two weeks of practice, while doing only 25 percent less work.
The team responded, in a physical and measurable way. The most glaring example came in the regular season finale, when, on a short week following a grueling loss to Florida, the Tigers scored 54 points against Texas A&M. That’s just 10 fewer points than they scored all of last November combined, and 10 more points than they scored in November 2014. Leonard Fournette set a school single-game rushing record on a bad ankle. Derrius Guice broke it weeks later, and surpassed 250 rushing yards – the old record – twice in 12 days.
“It was glaringly obvious from the first day (under Orgeron) that there was a big difference in the overall stress that the body was put under,” Moffitt says.
In past seasons, LSU has looked downright exhausted at the finish line. This year, though the team improved its November record by only one game, the Tigers passed the eye test. They appeared fresher and faster in College Station, because, well, they were.
The data bears that out. The ultimate goal, according to Moffit, is to get faster as the season progresses, with a lower average heart rate but a higher max heart rate. In past seasons, those numbers have been “sporadic.” Moffitt wants them to be “gradual,” and under Orgeron, that’s exactly what they were.
“We just got our final in-season report,” he says. “There’s a clear, distinct, gradual increase in velocity as the season progressed this year. That means they’re staying fresh and adapting to stress.”
And, in the long term, Moffitt hopes, that will lead to winning games.
THE FIRST TIME Kieran Hayward donned the monitor, it felt a little weird. Hayward, a freshman guard on the basketball team, might be Australian, but the product with origins down under was foreign to him.
“It was pretty uncomfortable when I first put it on,” he admits. “But you get used to it.”
Johnny Jones’ teams pride themselves on playing an uptempo style, consistently ranking among the nation’s fastest teams. And his players, accordingly, take pride in the distances they cover every day. This is the first year they’ve worn tracking devices, and practices, as a result, have gone up a gear. They all pay attention to distance covered, number of sprints run, recovery times, and top speeds, which have surpassed points, rebounds, and assists among statistical bases for braggadocio.
“They look at it as a way to compete,” says Rick Lefebvre, the team’s strength coach. “Any way we can get them to compete, then the better they’re all going to be as a result.”
“It’s kind of like a competition – who’s going to run the most in practice,” adds Hayward.
The answer, usually, is Aaron Epps. The 6-foot-10 junior consistently covers the most distance in any given practice. His long strides and desire to rim-run in transition gives him a leg up, so to speak, on his teammates.
“I just like to run,” he laughs.
His teammates don’t like to lose, though – particularly Antonio Blakeney and Craig Victor. Both often visit Lefebvre after practice for a peak at his iPad, which displays all the day’s data. Victor, more often than not, sets the pace for maximum velocity. Blakeney, meanwhile, sneaks in a few extra sprints on the side, just to top Epps for the day.
Not only does the data fuel competition. It also serves as a standard bearer. Long gone are the days of slowing down when the eyes of the coaching staff are elsewhere. Lefebvre, like Moffitt with Orgeron, consults with Jones about when certain players need a rest day, and who is responding best to particular workouts or sessions. The staff uses the data to make players work smarter; the players use it to work harder.
“It makes you practice harder,” says Blakeney. “You know you have that thing on and the coaches are looking at it.”
“After practice, if you look at it, and you haven’t run as much as everyone else, you’ll say, ‘Man, I need to work a little bit harder, keep up with the guys,’” adds freshman point guard Skylar Mays, who, with Blakeney, Hayward, and forward Duop Reath, pose the most frequent challenges to Epps’ ascendancy. “You can point out who’s taking plays off, based on the sprints. It’s really beneficial.”
Across campus in the football building, however, only Moffitt and his staff, for the most part, use the data gleaned from Polar’s sensors. Sure, some players, like Jackson, Derrius Guice, or any other Tiger interested in his top speed, will request the miles per hour of a particular sprint. But most of the data is too convoluted for football players busy deciphering blocking schemes and intricate X’s and O’s to spend too much time with.
If anyone wants to find out how fast Jackson is, there’s a simple solution. No sensors required.
“Let’s race,” he says. “And I don’t think nobody wants to do that.”