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GPS technology showed FSU Football was on track, even before the wins

Long before the positive results started showing up on the scoreboard inside Doak Campbell Stadium or at venues like this past weekend at Boston College, they were there on a laptop inside the Albert J. Dunlap Athletic Training Facility.

The strides were evident before the regular season started against Notre Dame, and they were there a month later when the Florida State football team was 0-4 and looking like it might endure one of the worst seasons in school history.

As coaches with decades of experience, Mike Norvell and his staff could tell with their eyes how hard their players were pushing themselves each day in practice and in the weight room. They could see the strain and the gains.

Thanks to the Catapult GPS technology FSU famously invested in before the 2013 national championship season, they could see it in the data they were tracking as well. And, perhaps just as importantly, they could show the evidence to the players.

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FSU defensive end Derrick McLendon races out onto the field Saturday at Boston College.
FSU defensive end Derrick McLendon races out onto the field Saturday at Boston College. (Getty Images)

Each day after workouts, they could pull up the cold, hard numbers -- the empirical data -- that showed just how much progress each player was making individually and how hard the Seminoles were competing as a team.

"It kind of verifies the work that is being done," Norvell said in an interview with Warchant.com.

So even though the final scores of those first four games might not have indicated it, FSU's staff was convinced things were trending in the right direction. That the players were buying in and working much harder than they had during Norvell's first year in Tallahassee.

The numbers proved it.

In the form of millions of data entries being transmitted from small devices that the players wear each day -- "Any time they have pads on, there's a pouch in their shoulder pads," FSU strength and conditioning coach Josh Storms said -- the Seminoles can monitor a wide variety of information.

The data is transmitted through two wireless receptors that stand in front of a table inside the team's indoor practice facility, and the numbers instantly populate on a laptop monitored by associate director of strength and conditioning Tom Farniok.

"It's capable of tracking thousands upon thousands of data metrics," Storms said. "We really pare it down to our six most important ones."

There's "player load," which is the total volume of work a player puts in during practice or a workout. Then there is load per minute, which calculates the intensity of that work.

The Seminoles also focus on each player's speed, their change of direction, their explosive efforts and their total yardage. The coaches then use that information to make more informed decisions and evaluations.

One such determination early this season was how much faster the 2021 Seminoles were compared to the 2020 version. As a group, Storms said, FSU improved its average team speed more than than 0.5 miles per hour.

"In a car, that might feel like nothing," Storms said. "But in say a 40-yard dash, that's like 0.15 seconds. That's the difference between 4.6 and 4.45 -- so a half-mile per hour is pretty significant."

"For us going from year one to year two, it's been good for us to see overall team speed, and how those guys are operating," Norvell said. "It's been real positive. You look back at in-game, the number of guys we have that are hitting over 18, 19, 20 miles per hour in top speeds in games. The explosive movements. Building that up through camp was really impressive. Then as you look at the games, it's marked improvement."

The data is useful in other ways as well.

When Florida State won that 2013 championship, former head coach Jimbo Fisher credited it with helping reduce the number of soft tissue injuries -- damage to muscles, ligaments and tendons -- across the team. By monitoring players' exertion minute by minute, the training staff could determine when players were pushing themselves to a point where their body might break down.

Norvell said FSU's current staff has taken the same approach and seen similar results. He credited Storms, head athletic trainer Josh Chatman and director of sports medicine Scott Trulock with closely monitoring the work load of every player.

"They evaluate that every day," Norvell said. "And we get a report back as coaches -- these are guys that are high player loads. If there are any other issues with them, whether it's potential injury that they're working through or consecutive days at an extreme player load, we know that we need to be able to de-load or to pull them back a little bit."

"Load management doesn't always mean, 'Let's do less,'" Storms said. "Sometimes it's, hey, we are pushing hard on purpose. So now we've got to put a premium on recovery. How we're taking care of our bodies after the fact. How we're refueling, how we're recovering. ... It allows us to make educated decisions on where we're pushing, what we need to recover and when we do need to dial back."

That information is often most critical when working with players who are coming back from injuries.

Storms brought up former safety Hamsah Nasirildeen as an example. When the All-ACC defensive back was returning from reconstructive knee surgery last season, the staff would limit him to a certain percentage of work load each day. And the coaches would be deliberate when choosing which portions of practice would provide him and the team the greatest benefit.

"We'd go to a period, grab him and pull him out," Storms said. "Then in period 16, we know he's going back in with his group and will be ready to go."

The topic of "load management" became a prominent storyline for the Seminoles this year during preseason camp, when UCF quarterback transfer McKenzie Milton was held out of several practices.

With Milton battling back from numerous surgeries to repair catastrophic damage to his right leg, the Seminoles meticulously tracked the GPS data to watch for any drops in speed or exertion.

"All those things are kind of red flags," Norvell said. "Maybe we might need to pull back. For McKenzie, you didn't know [how much work his leg could handle]. The body's still the body. You might want them to get a 50 percent workload, but if it's a painful 50 percent, the body is going to speak to you about what it needs."

Norvell and Storms were no strangers to the Catapult technology when they came to Florida State from Memphis in December 2019. While their previous school didn't make the investment to outfit the entire team with devices, they were able to monitor about 10 key players. And they would use that information as a guideline for the entire team.

But with Florida State already possessing the software and equipment for a full roster, they were able to log the numbers from 2020 as a baseline, and then track improvement during this spring, summer and fall.

"The biggest thing guys always want to know is their top speed," Storms said. "How fast was I? Did I make top three? Or did I make 18-, 19- or 20-plus [miles per hour]? For the guys to see the progression of that, that's the fun part -- when you can actually put a tangible number to the things that we see and we talk about. That the numbers are agreeing with what we see."

The numbers also help the coaches validate their approach to training.

While many programs conduct strenuous, physical practices during the season on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and then gradually taper off on Thursdays and Fridays before games, the Seminoles take a different tact.

The Tuesday-through-Thursday schedule is similar, but FSU's players are pushed once again on Fridays in a shorter yet very intense practice. And the data has helped the players understand why that is beneficial.

"For us, we go hard on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday is a much slower day, and then we ramp back up on Fridays," Norvell said. "It's a different way to practice and prepare for games. Sometimes, guys will ask the question: Why? Well, it's preparing us to play as fast as we can, to be as explosive as we can be on game day.

"When you have the data to back that up -- that you are playing faster than what you've ever played, that you're hitting those top numbers for explosive moments, the amount of work that you're doing and able to sustain throughout the course of the game is better because of the work that's gone into it -- those are the things that verify the philosophy and the strategy."

The numbers often provide validation for the coaches as well.

If one player isn't giving maximum effort, or if another player is pushing himself to greater levels than ever before, that might have caught a coach's eye in the past. Now, the effort is captured indelibly in the numbers.

"If I see someone that I think is dragging, and you see that they're below the group average or below what their average is, it's good confirmation," Norvell said.

But, he adds, those cases have been few and far between.

Since long before this recent turnaround started -- before the Seminoles won five of seven games and elevated themselves to the brink of bowl eligibility -- Norvell and his staff were complimentary of the way this team approached workouts and practices.

They knew the players weren't simply going through the motions. That their speeds and work loads and explosive movements were steadily increasing -- even when the results weren't necessarily reflected in the final scores on Saturdays.

And Norvell believes you can clearly see that progress on game days. In how hard the Seminoles are competing in games, how physically they play, and how they've responded to adversity.

"I believe that we've improved as much in that area, from a year ago to now, as probably any," Norvell said. "It's why you see the response. It's why you see, regardless of where you are in the course of a game -- whether it was early in the season, late in the season, up or down -- these guys are gonna fight. They're gonna continue to push."

The proof is in the numbers.

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Talk about this story with other Florida State football fans in the Tribal Council