Ralph D. Russo
AP College Football Writer
COLUMBUS — The Ohio State Buckeyes are trickling into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center a few hours before practice, but a couple of dozen players need to check in with a member of the sports performance team before they get suited up.
Tyvus Powell and Joshua Perry wrap a band around their torsos and place an electrode on their hands and forehead, and link it up to an iPod. After about five minutes, the players take the gear off and head to the locker room.
The device is one of many ways coach Urban Meyer’s staff tracks how players are holding up to the wear and tear of football. The data gathered will help tell coaches whether to go hard or ease up when the players hit the practice field.
The Buckeyes are far from the only college team using technology and medical science alongside old-fashioned intuition to track the well-being of athletes, but no program is doing more than Ohio State.
The goal is not just to have healthier players, but better players. It is here where safety and strategy intersect. And it’s shifting the culture of football toward a less-can-be-more approach when it comes to how players train, practice and play.
“It has dramatically changed how we do our business,” said Meyer, who believes at least part of the reason his team peaked at the end of last season and won the national championship was because of a monitoring program that left the Buckeyes with plenty in their tanks for the stretch run.
The days of getting a team ready Junction Boys-style, pushing players well beyond their physical limits for the sake of making them tougher is mostly gone.
“You’re training a Secretariat,” Notre Dame director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo said.
Mickey Marotti is Longo’s counterpart at Ohio State and the man with his hand on the pulse of Meyer’s teams since the coach’s days at Florida.
Strength and conditioning coaches often set the tone for a program and help establish the team’s work ethic. Simply, they coach toughness. The job has changed over the years.
These days, Marotti spends as much time analyzing binders and computer screens full of players’ physiological data and workload as he does supervising them in the weight room.
Marotti and Ohio State’s sports performance team monitor players’ heart rates during practice, along with how far and fast they run.
Competitive repetitions, both in practice and games, are tallied for each player. During spring practice some of Ohio State’s best players, including Powell, Perry, defensive lineman Joey Bosa and offensive lineman Taylor Decker, were held out at times not because of injuries but because they had reached 2,000 competitive reps in their careers.
Pulling back is not something that comes naturally to Meyer.
“If I’m in a bad mood or I think we’re soft, we got to toughen them up. But I have to have a really trusted right-hand man that says, ‘Here’s where we’re at. We had a very high-impact and high-volume day yesterday so we’re backing off today.’ I would never have done that,” he said.
Before practice every Ohio State player takes a urine test to determine hydration. Players that are not properly hydrated don’t practice until they are.
Medical experts have tied hydration to soft tissue injuries. There have also been studies done trying to determine the role of hydration in concussions, but the findings have been inconclusive.
The electrode and iPod device is called an Omegawave and it tracks overall physiological readiness through an app. After a few minutes wearing the device, a score of one through seven appears on the iPod. The greater the score the better.
Buckeyes won’t be held out of practice entirely because of an Omegawave reading, but they are useful.
“I’ve had a couple of scores where I was a two or three when my strength wasn’t there or my coordination was a little off,” tight end Nick Vannett said.
If a player is dragging and he scored low on his Omegawave test it could help explain the poor practice. It also helps determine which players could use a break and which ones need to be pushed.
“And a kid might say, ‘I’m tired. I’m sore. My body hurts,’ and then you do an Omega, a scientific approach to recovery, and they’re fine,” Marotti said.
The heart monitors track workload and those numbers are logged daily. Consecutive days of heavy workloads for certain players, or the team in general, and Marotti will recommend a lighter day. Earlier this season, Indiana ran 91 plays and eight Ohio State defensive players were in on about 100 snaps.
“Absolutely, we’ve adjusted practice,” Marotti said.
Having tracked the players for three years, including a championship season, Meyer and Marotti hope they have a baseline for success.
“There’s a bit of selfishness in all of this,” Meyer said. “Player safety is always number one, but player safety leads to better football teams. We had the same starting lineup in October as we did in August last year.”
Still, this is far from an exact science. There are too many variables and not enough data to manage players strictly by the numbers or to make direct correlations between performance and usage patterns.
At Texas A&M, coach Kevin Sumlin’s staff spent last season collecting data and tracking wear and tear, studying and analyzing what they gathered and coming up with a plan on how to use it. One place is in recruiting.
Sumlin said he and his coaches sell player-development to recruits and talk about how a player will leave A&M with plenty left in his body to pursue a pro career.
“Here we’re going to monitor your performance, surround you with coaches that know what they’re doing, but we’re also going to … monitor your body to make sure that we’re maximizing your tools and talents and not abusing them.”
Longo, who has been working with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly for 12 years, said all the technology and monitoring “gets you away from try harder mode.”
As long as there has been football, try harder has been considered a cure-all. Playing through pain and pushing through exhaustion will always be part of the deal — until the numbers say stop.