Inside Georgia Tech’s data-driven change in practice philosophy

October 9, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's quarterback Jeff Sims (10) runs with the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Friday, October 9, 2020. Georgia Tech's won 46-27 over the Louisville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
October 9, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's quarterback Jeff Sims (10) runs with the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Friday, October 9, 2020. Georgia Tech's won 46-27 over the Louisville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

If all goes well Saturday evening at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Georgia Tech will go into the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh with a shot at its third win of the season.

In that event, Tech coaches and players will rely on what they believe is an advantage gained through an adjustment in practice philosophy implemented by coach Geoff Collins this season. Collins and his staff based the change on, among other things, analysis of data mined from the team’s wearable GPS technology.

“I think the performance numbers that we’ve been seeing on the field have been really, really good,” Ryan Horton, Tech’s director of applied sports science, told the AJC. “The feedback that we’re getting from the players has been really, really good.”

It should be noted that the numbers of which Horton speaks aren’t the standard football benchmarks, such as yards gained, turnovers created and, certainly, wins and losses. Horton’s realm is the application of science and data to Tech’s strength-and-conditioning program – helping Tech to be at its physical peak Saturday.

“There’s so many different factors, and there’s so many different elements that goes into an actual win or a loss,” Horton said. “My piece of it is just trying to really zero in and look at how did we perform physically, and how can we perfect that as much as possible?”

Using the Catapult system – including GPS devices about the size of a credit card worn in a harness or with shoulder pads – Horton digs into data such as top speeds, high-speed accelerations and changes of direction. The numbers produced in Tech’s seven games give Horton the confidence that the changes – broadly, Collins has lightened the practice load from last year – have had their intended effect.

Said Horton, “I think it’s been really, really positive.”

It’s far from the final piece of the puzzle. The Jackets' shortcomings – a high volume of turnovers and penalties and leaky third-down defense among them – have often prevented them from getting into a position where being the fresher team in the fourth quarter matters.

“Those are the things that we continue to develop with a young team,” Collins said. “But as far as playing with tremendous effort, flying around, playing together – the guys have done that.”

Offseason research

The project, examining the structure of game-week practices, took place in the offseason. Horton was involved, as were strength-and-conditioning coach Lewis Caralla, football research-and-analytics coordinator Pat Boyle and Collins, who is an avid proponent of Catapult, bringing it (and Horton) with him from Temple.

It followed the conversation of load management that has filtered throughout sports, perhaps most noticeably in the NBA – monitoring athletes' minutes or snaps or practice time to keep them fresh for games and the duration of the season.

They researched what innovative coaches had done with their practice weeks, such as Chip Kelly from his time at Oregon, and tried to estimate how those practice plans would have looked from a player-load standpoint. They examined their Catapult data from the 2019 season and Collins' two seasons at Temple.

With more time on their hands because of quarantining, no idea was off the table, Horton said. They examined moving the off day from Monday to Wednesday or Thursday. They considered how players might do if they shifted the heavy practice day from Tuesday to Monday.

“Basically, we put together all these different scenarios,” Horton said. “We plugged them all into all the templates, all into the numbers. We kind of let the numbers tell us, what from a purely analytical standpoint, made sense.”

To engage Horton in a conversion about the project is to understand his passion for his work. A two-way lineman at Otterbein University in Ohio, Horton became a strength-and-conditioning coach upon graduation in 2004. But he also has a mind for number crunching and taking an analytical approach to his field. His job incorporates all of those interests.

“When I’m driving to work in the morning, I’m thinking numbers,” he said. “And when I’m driving home, I’m thinking numbers. When I’m at home watching Cobra Kai on Netflix, I’m still thinking numbers.”

At the end of the deep dive, they kept Monday as the off day and Tuesday as the heavy workday.

“In our opinion, Tuesday still needs to be a tough day,” Horton said.

After Tuesday, though, the load was lightened for the remainder of the week to help players build to Saturday. For example, a staple of Thursday practices last season was something called “Thursday races,” when players ran all-out sprints to rehearse kickoff coverage, but also to inject energy into practice, as players raced to see who could record the fastest speed on their Catapult devices. That drill was taken out of the practice plan as it “didn’t really fit within the scope of the practice plan of what we were trying to do,” Horton said.

Georgia Tech director of applied sports science Ryan Horton (arms crossed) said that the team's physical performance in response to a changed practice regimen has been "really, really positive."
Georgia Tech director of applied sports science Ryan Horton (arms crossed) said that the team's physical performance in response to a changed practice regimen has been "really, really positive."

Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik

Credit: Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik

The early results

Speaking in late October, Horton pointed to numbers recorded in the fourth quarter of the Louisville game, when the team registered its most sprint distance (yards covered by players running 14 mph or faster) and most high-speed accelerations (any player increasing his speed at a rate of four meters per second squared) in any fourth quarter since the start of Collins' tenure in 2019.

In the same quarter, four players – Jaytlin Askew, Josh Blancato, Tobias Oliver and Juanyeh Thomas – hit top speeds of 21 mph, the most any Collins team had had at Tech in the fourth quarter of a game.

Tech’s fastest players can hit 23 mph in practice when running in a straight line. So to have four players approach those speeds after three hours of competition is “really, really impressive,” Horton said.

There are more challenges. Tech, for instance, has been largely dreadful in first quarters of games, when they’ve been outscored 79-21. The pattern of turnovers and other mistakes needs to stop. But, Collins can take encouragement from the fact that, in Tech’s two games where the game hung in the balance in the fourth quarter – Florida State and Louisville – the Jackets were clearly the better team in the final 15 minutes.

Tech outscored the Seminoles and Cardinals by a combined 29-0, accumulating a plus-3 turnover margin and amassing a yardage advantage of 249-135.

Trying ‘the smarter thing’

The changes have been noticed. Practices in the 2019 season, wide receiver Ahmarean Brown said, were all out.

“Just every play, full speed – go, go, go, go, go” he said.

Brown has observed that, after Tuesday, practice tempo slows down. There is more mental work. Wednesday practices, he said, have not been conducted in full pads. In games this year, he said that he can feel the difference in his legs.

“They do a lot of things to help us feel better,” Brown said.

The shift has resonated with, among others, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, in his 30th season coaching college football, no stranger to the bravado that, the longer and harder the practice, the better.

“I think the smarter thing is to be able to get all of your work in, mentally, (and) to have periods that you choose to use at full speed,” he said.

He said that the No. 1 offense might do full-speed work against the No. 1 defense to stay sharp, but then go lighter against the scout team, focusing more on making sure players see coverages and make the checks, but not necessarily running full-speed plays with full contact.

Patenaude said that Horton will tell him during the week that a particular player should be limited to a certain number of snaps in order to have him fresh for game day.

“We didn’t know anything about that back in the day,” Patenaude said. “You just ran dudes into the ground.”

On Saturday, with dudes and their legs markedly fresher than they might have been previously, Tech will try to profit from innovation.

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