Eric Rash is used to the funny looks, the inevitable follow-up questions. He gets them all the time.
Rash serves as the Director of Applied Performance for Baylor athletics. So, what exactly does that title mean? What does he do?
It’s a fair (and familiar) question.
“The easiest follow-up that people seem to, at least from a football space, understand right away is that it’s a sports science position,” Rash said. “That seems to click with a lot of people, for whatever reason. Sports science, in general, has exploded over the last decade.”
The blending of science and technology with college football has become commonplace these days. Baylor employs multiple support staff members who work directly with various types of technology and track their application within the football realm.
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“Certainly within the last five years you’re seeing that at programs all over the country, especially at the Power 5 level,” Rash said. “Embedded within football, there’s a person who coordinates the technology needed, collects the data, synthesizes the data, that maybe creates an area around that to explain something to an athlete, explain something to a performance coach, support coach, what have you. That’s kind of the role I serve within our football program.”
Rash didn’t necessarily set out to be a sports scientist. In his soul, he wanted to be a strength coach, and he still considers himself plugged into that world. But he does own an undergraduate degree in neurobiology to go with his master’s in strength and conditioning studies. When the opportunity arose to move in the direction of applied performance, Rash jumped at it, as he was already leaning more in that direction.
Andrew Althoff was his predecessor in the position, serving in that capacity under Matt Rhule. When Rhule left for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers before the 2020 season, Althoff joined him, and Rash interviewed for and landed the open job at Baylor.
He works with several of Baylor’s sports, but when football is in season the vast majority of his time is devoted to working with Dave Aranda and his staff.
One of the most prevalent pieces of technology used by the football players is the Catapult GPS Player Tracker System. GPS technology is fairly familiar to even the most clueless of laymen. Golfers use it with their electronic range finders to determine the yardage from their ball to the flag. Runners rely on it to track their average speed when training for a marathon or triathlon. Moms and Dads use it with apps like Life360 to keep track of the whereabouts of their children, and teens lean on the technology when they pull up the Find My iPhone app to uncover their phone within the mess of their rooms. It’s a part of our everyday life.
So, naturally, it only makes sense that it would find its way to the football field. The Catapult Trackers are worn by Baylor’s players for every practice and every game. They look like a tank top-style undershirt, but have a GPS tracker sewn into the fabric.
Several times this season, Aranda has referenced how many players may have clocked upward of 21 or 22 miles per hour during a game. That’s the kind of data that coaches (and fans) drool over.
“That one is really eye-catching because people understand that right away,” Rash said. “It’s really difficult to say a guy accelerates at four or five meters per second squared, nobody really knows what that means. ‘Is that good, is that bad? What does that mean?’ But if you say a guy ran 22 miles an hour, it’s like, ‘Whoa, that’s good.’”
Nevertheless, Rash and company use the GPS data to measure more than just a player’s speed. Catapult has developed different algorithm-based metrics to measure things like the force of a lineman’s contact during a block or a defender’s impact while making a tackle, Rash said. There is a change-of-direction metric that can prove useful for evaluating running backs and linebackers, who often have to accelerate within a small sliver of space.
“We really use it as an auditing tool,” Rash said. “Some people would argue that it’s better used for programming, planning, that type of stuff. There is a time and place for that. But, really, the meat and potatoes of what we’re using it for is auditing purposes.”
That means looking at the data and determining if a player is reaching or exceeding his goals or falling short of them.
“We have the game data, so we know how much a guy is doing,” Rash said. “We know volume, we know intensity, how much, how far, how fast. We can quantify all that.”
Aranda started his coaching career back in 1995, when this mixture of sport and science would have probably been equated to voodoo by old-school football coaches. Yet Baylor’s thoughtful third-year head coach has embraced the influx of technology and data into the game, even as he understands he still has to trust what his own eyes are telling him.
“It’s funny because you kind of go back, for me it’s a little bit of full circle,” Aranda said. “Earlier in the year, we might have been relying on it too much. … The first part of the year, I was probably maybe going off the numbers too much, and it’s because I wasn’t really feeling energy at practice. This would be the old-school things that prior to having numbers, you could feel it. There are dudes who come to practice, and they’ll have a sense of, is this team in it, are they not in it, what’s the feel of it.
“Numbers, sometimes, while they’re good, I think they’re an aid to that feeling. I don’t think they replace the feeling, the read of it. So these last three weeks, and the fourth week now, I think the feeling has been there, and you have the numbers to kind of be there side by side, and I think that’s a positive thing.”
Force of habit
Besides the GPS trackers worn by the players, Baylor relies on various other pieces of technology. In the weight room, the football players will regularly jump on force plates. These devices measure how high and how much force a player is administering as he jumps.
“We’ll look at a bunch of different metrics when it comes to that, but the one that guys all want to know, similar to miles per hour, is they want to know how high they jumped,” Rash said. “We’ll tell them that instantly, which is really cool. But we can see how much eccentric force a guy is exhibiting, how much concentric force. How much force on the way down, how much force on the way up.”
They track other things, too. A player’s weight is a simple bit of data that football teams have been gathering since the days of leather helmets. But Rash said it’s often overlooked in maintaining the health and wellness of the football team.
“Every football program in America does it, but how do you take that body weight information and then couple that with what you’re seeing on the GPS, couple that with what you’re seeing on the force plates,” Rash said. “Couple that with, you’re talking to a guy, and how is he feeling? What are some of the things he’s telling you are going on with him? There’s an interplay between all this stuff.”
All of the data gets fed back to Aranda and his assistant coaches. Together they determine how to best use it and evaluate it, with the help of Rash and others. That’s where it helps to speak the coach’s language.
Eccentric force? Just tell me if this guy’s dragging or not.
“I’ve been guilty of this in the past,” Rash said. “Sometimes you want to do the numbers and the science justice, so you use a nomenclature that relates to that. That can get lost sometimes, because it’s not part of the everyday vernacular that’s being used in the coaching space.
“Sometimes the mistake is made, well, coaches should kind of learn that to understand it. When, really, I think we as sports scientists need to adapt what we’re saying to the coaches, so they understand it, and so it makes sense right away.”
That’s where strength coach Vic Voloria is a godsend, Rash said. Voloria — whose official title is Director of Athletic Performance — operates as kind of a translator between the applied performance side of things and the coaching side. He is fluent in both languages.
As the business of college football continues to grow, the science and metrics figure to expand along with it. Rash said that they’re already using the GPS and force plate data to aid with a player’s return to play following an injury, and he envisions that marriage to develop even more over the next five to 10 years.
Next step: Recruiting
Where the next boom is probably coming is the increased use of technology when it comes to evaluating recruits, he said.
“There’s huge inroads to be made in the recruiting side with this data,” Rash said. “I don’t think it could be understated that if you bring in really good players, you have a really good chance at winning. All things considered, if your base level of talent far exceeds your competition, you’re already at an advantage, without doing anything else.
“So, being able to identify kids on the front end, because you’re seeing this explosion of wearables at the high school level, also. This data exists for kids at that level. … That’s where the real big explosion is.”
Even the most fervent Baylor football fan probably couldn’t pick Rash out of a crowd. Same goes for the dozens of others in the support staff. But they’re part of the team, nonetheless.
Rash delights when the technology helps a player reach his potential, or when it prevents an injured player from returning to the field too soon. And just like everyone involved in the football program, there’s nothing like a win on game day.
“It’s awesome. The amount of work that these guys and these coaches put into it, people think they know, but they really don’t, unless you’re around it every single day,” Rash said. “It’s really awesome to see that hard work and that time and that sacrifice pay off.
“Winning is hard. Regardless of who your opponent is, and it should never be taken for granted. I don’t think it is taken for granted. When you actually reach that achievement, it’s really, really rewarding.”