An age-old football axiom claims, “The eye in the sky don’t lie.”
It points to a coach’s ability to accurately judge a player’s technique and effort simply by watching the postgame or post-practice video. Like everything else these days, though, the technology of 20 or even 10 years ago seems like it’s from the Stone Age.
The new mantra in athletics might well be, “The Catapult catches all.” In the last decade, the Catapult system, an Australian technology that uses global positioning systems to measure more than 200 data points every step an athlete takes, has replaced the video camera as a coach’s favorite lie detector.
“It’s really a great tool for us,” first-year South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “It’s amazing. It shows exertion. How many times is the guy exerting? I can sit down with a player and say, ‘This guy plays the same position and his work capacity level is much higher than yours. Why?’ ”
Muschamp used the system in his final three seasons at Florida, and brought it with him when he was named South Carolina’s coach in December. The Gamecocks players, who didn’t use the system under the previous coaching staff, were skeptical at first.
Senior cornerback Rico McWilliams remembers looking askance at the device the first time it was strapped to him. Each player wears a piece of clothing that looks like a small bra into which fits a tracking device about the size of a cell phone between their shoulder blades.
“The next day they showed us how fast we were going and how much effort you were giving. You think you’re giving a lot of effort, but when you look on the computer, you’re not giving too much effort,” McWilliams remembered of his first time with Catapult. “The first couple times you’d be like, ‘C’mon coach, I promise I’m giving my all on this. I don’t know what’s wrong with these numbers.’ ”
There’s no use arguing against the Catapult with Muschamp, though. He’s a believer. In fact, the first time he really got excited about the potential of sophomore wide receiver Deebo Samuel was not watching him on the field, but looking at a printout of Samuel’s Catapult numbers from an offseason workout.
Every South Carolina player wears the system during every practice and every workout. It measures everything from top-end speed (which causes a daily competition amongst the team’s cornerbacks and wide receivers) to how much effort each player is giving based on what his maximum effort is judged to be.
“It’s a great motivational tool for us with our players,” Muschamp said. “You see who’s running fast a lot. How many times are you really gutting? ‘You ran at 21 mph here, but you only ran 15 mph the rest of the practice. Why?’ It’s also for us to measure how many guys a mile is running at practice. If they’re dead-legged, why are they dead-legged? Let’s look and see what they’ve been doing.”
Catapult refers to its system as “The Most Used Secret In Sport.” Twenty-four NFL teams, more than 100 NCAA teams and the Golden State Warriors use the technology. Florida State, Clemson, LSU, Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Vanderbilt all the use the system.
Alabama uses the system to evaluate when players are healthy enough to return from injury by judging their Catapult readings against readings taken before the injury, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher credited Catapult with reducing soft tissue injuries (pulled muscles, strained tendons, etc.) by 88 percent in a two-year period.
“I live by that thing,” Fisher said. “It takes a lot of guesswork out of how tired your team is.”
South Carolina strength coach Jeff Dillman collects the GPS tracker out of each players holster after every practice and workout and compiles the data. A spreadsheet with the information hits Muschamp’s desk daily.
“The Catapult has so many individual small things you can measure. It gives you so much information,” Dillman said. “You have to have somebody pull out the stuff that you want because there are a thousand variables in there you can use.”
It’s a pretty Space Age tool for a program that Muschamp promises will build its foundation a blue-collar work ethic.
“That’s probably as modern as we get,” Muschamp said. “Other than that, we are very old-fashioned in what we do.”