Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories about innovation and change in college football throughout the 2023 season.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Howard Cross did as he was told during Notre Dame’s first weekend off in nearly three months. He went for a jog to keep his cardio up. He stayed off his feet otherwise, save experimenting with cryotherapy. As the team reported back to campus Sunday night, Cross took his time. The defensive tackle had earned it. Everyone associated with the Notre Dame football program had after playing eight games over eight weeks.
Coach Marcus Freeman has called what’s coming a “sprint” as Notre Dame faces a start-and-stop end to the season: two games on, a second idle weekend off, then another two games on. The No. 14 Irish might be 6-2 and out of the College Football Playoff chase, but they still have much to play for through November. And the reason comes back to how Notre Dame managed the marathon of the past three months.
“Eight straight weeks, no bye weeks, and for some weird reason I still can’t understand, four straight night games, that takes a … ” Cross said, his voice trailing off. “I could tell the feeling in the facility is higher (now). No one is out of energy. Everyone is excited to play.”
There is no singular author to Notre Dame’s recovery story, how a program with a second-year head coach navigated terrain that could make anyone stumble. Freeman made the tough calls, including reversing his preferred Sunday/Monday routine, going back to Brian Kelly’s approach of making Sunday an off day and Monday a practice day, rather than the vice versa of last season. He made some easier ones, too, from having golf carts available to players during training camp to help save their legs to encouraging players to stay out of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex on their time off.
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In-season, Freeman shortened practices, risking the preparation of now for the sake of keeping Notre Dame in play for later. Some individual periods turned into walk-throughs. Some periods were scrapped altogether. A second-year head coach raised in the old school of Jim Tressel accepted that going harder for longer isn’t a modern solution any more than a sweater vest represents contemporary fashion.
Though Notre Dame hasn’t had a perfect injury report this season, Freeman believes it’s been better. After opening last season with a banged-up roster against Ohio State — guard Jarrett Patterson was out and cornerback Cam Hart played with a hamstring strain — the Irish came through this training camp clean. Soft-tissue injuries have caught up with the receivers group since, as Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse missed time in October, but Notre Dame will enter the season’s final acts with a nearly full complement of players.
“If there’s a better way to do it, and somebody can explain it to me in a way that makes sense, and I understand, and I agree with it, let’s do it,” Freeman said. “It’s a part of growth. And sometimes I think that’s what prevents people from growing.”
But for Notre Dame’s coach to improve his long game, the university needed to back Freeman’s development with more than just technology. Notre Dame players have worn Catapult GPS trackers for almost a decade. The program has tracked sleep and invested in recovery systems. In other words, sports science is not new here. It’s just that how Notre Dame processes the data had to be.
If there’s a best practice for how to interpret data and lean into sports science, Notre Dame is still chasing it. This is all probably a moving target anyway, making the pursuit not only critical but also infinite. Yet, after nearly six years on this trail, Notre Dame feels primed to leap forward. The football program got a taste of how a scientific method can better inform training this season. Notre Dame hopes these steps can be repurposed across all sports.
“I just realized now why he was taking care of us so much. The eight straight weeks would have honestly killed any team that didn’t have the right practice schedule,” Cross said. “Made the right adjustments and we are very thankful he made those adjustments.”
Marcus Freeman gets the distilled data Sunday, in advance of meeting with Notre Dame’s sports performance team a day later. That’s when he sits with head trainer Rob Hunt, interim strength coach Fred Hale, team physician Matt Leiszler and sports performance director John Wagle. Hunt, Hale and Leiszler are in the football program’s weeds, on the sidelines every Saturday. They witness the physical tolls paid on game day.
Wagle sees the game differently, which is the point.
Notre Dame hired Wagle from the Kansas City Royals 18 months ago to lead its sports performance department, filling a position that had been essentially vacant since Duncan French led it in 2016. After a year in South Bend, French was hired away as UFC’s vice president of performance.
Between French and Wagle, Notre Dame’s teams tracked their own data without a thread linking the programs. At the end of Brian Kelly’s tenure, that work fell to assistant strength coach Jake Flint, now Kelly’s lead strength coach at LSU. Deputy athletic director Jody Sadler, who’s led Notre Dame’s competitive excellence group since 2019, knew this needed to change. She also believed how the department grew needed to be a ground-up process.
Simply finding the next French wasn’t enough. Notre Dame needed to have better support systems in place first.
“Teams would compile either their own Tableau or their own Excel spreadsheets and kind of dive into it on their own, which is not sustainable,” Sadler said. “Because when people leave, that knowledge goes with them.”
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Since Sadler shifted into her current role, Notre Dame has grown its sports performance staff to nearly a dozen. Mental performance has basically doubled. Same with nutrition. French helped advise Notre Dame how to get the infrastructure right, meaning when Wagle came aboard the foundation would have already been poured. Notre Dame has already added a hire to Wagle’s team, with another inbound. Notre Dame leaned on current staff, coaches, alumni and outside consults like French to figure out what it needed.
When Wagle signed on, he didn’t try to change Notre Dame. He started by listening. For almost an entire academic year, he met with coaches and figured out what Notre Dame needed. At its best, Wagle sees sports science as telling a story about each Notre Dame athlete, putting objective data behind feeling. How coaches process those stories, like how Freeman adjusts football practices — that’s up to the coaches themselves. Wagle’s position is to be a thread that weaves through Notre Dame’s programs, not to be a manager of the people within them.
“If we provide the right support, (coaches) get a lot of insights on what adjustments they feel that they need to make, so that’s really how we identify what’s important, to listen to them,” Wagle said. “But, we also have 26 different (sports) here that we need to also do diligence on kind of on the back end and under the hood, helping identify which pieces of information have the greatest impact on performance.
“So from that standpoint, we need to really clearly understand what performance is. And then what inputs actually influence that output. And we’re in the process of doing that and getting everything in one place where we can answer those questions.”
In the case of football, multiple data flows help Freeman formulate practice plans. The Catapult system offers player loads, sprint volume and force of impact for every player, in practices and games. The sports performance team can get subjective measurements on players through anecdotal evidence. It also measures fatigue through force plates that track more objective data.
“It’s a dose and response,” Wagle said. “That’s really the challenge. They have so many inputs, that you really want to be able to distill down their response into something that’s actionable.”
When Freeman gets the data from Notre Dame’s sports performance team, it’s interpreted at a “101 version,” the coach said. And that might be the biggest part of Wagle’s job: the ability to take complex information and make it digestible for coaches who don’t have time for a weekly symposium on recovery.
That means the killer tech for Wagle probably isn’t a float tank or cold laser. It’s talking to coaches, understanding what they need, then adding expertise to a field in which there are few certainties. Yes, enhancing sleep quality and recovery are changes Notre Dame can make now, but Wagle’s focus is as much about cutting out processes as adding more gadgets to sports performance.
“I would say that the way that you can really maximize all of those inputs is to win the game of communication and translating those insights,” Wagle said. “It’s not necessarily who’s collecting the most things, or who is equipping their staffs with the most technology or their different tools. It’s really who can maximize what they are getting from each one of those things.
“We spend more time on that than anything because we have really great coaches, really great sports performance team that once they’re given the right information, they’re in a really good place to make good decisions.”
What does success look like for Notre Dame’s sports performance group? There’s already an acknowledgment Notre Dame is better positioned for long-term success than it was the first time around. The support staff is in place. There’s institutional knowledge of what works. And there’s some evidence from the football program of progress.
Now repeat that across the athletic department.
“It’s not siloed, it’s telling a story about each individual student-athlete on a multitude of levels, using data inputs, that are their most influential,” Sadler said. “And that’ll mean success, obviously, for the most important folks, our student-athletes, our coaches, everyone that supports the athletics program.”
Marcus Freeman’s intentions made sense.
The sooner the coaching staff could process what happened the previous Saturday, the sooner it could move on to the next one. As Freeman saw it, that meant practicing Sundays, giving both the staff and roster a chance to put yesterday’s game to bed. The problem was it meant the players struggled to recover physically and emotionally from games as weeks bled into one another. The parade of night games made it worse, the team sometimes returning to campus at 3 a.m. and expected in the Gug for meetings eight hours later. For the staff, this was all fine. For players, whose bodies needed to recover while they caught up on school, it was a chore.
“You’ve got to be crazy to prefer that,” linebacker Marist Liufau said. “We were in here running and doing drills, and it was the day after a game.”
Freeman asks his players to seek feedback from coaches, being proactive about ways to improve. In this instance, it was the coach hearing from his roster. As much as getting into the sports science with Wagle has enhanced Notre Dame’s practice plans, so too has Freeman’s being open to feedback from the players.
It’s hard for the players to imagine a season when the Irish played four consecutive night games with practices the next day after each.
“For me, Sundays are like my most stressful days,” offensive tackle Blake Fisher said. “A lot of people always wonder why, but I’m thinking about school, football and trying to study for the next opponent, call my family and everything. I love to flip it, and Mondays we have a walk-through and we watch the game. You’re really like getting two days off.”
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It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s working in the realm of sports performance because these tweaks don’t guarantee nights like the blowout win against USC any more than they can stop a letdown like the loss at Louisville. All Notre Dame can do is follow the data, then believe it’s interpreting it the right way.
“I’ve adjusted,” Freeman said. “I adjust each week based off the loads that I get back from the game, based off what the previous week looked like and based off the demands they have this week.”
There might never be a true best practice when it comes to interpreting GPS metrics or sleep hours, but there are best efforts. With Wagle leading Notre Dame’s sports performance team and Freeman open to ideas, it feels like the football program is meeting that mark. If there is a formula for winning at sports performance, Notre Dame is positioned to chase it.
“We’re there to collaborate,” Wagle said. “We’re there to support the coaching staff in whatever way they need. That does look different week to week because each week is a new challenge.”
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(Top photo: Michael Miller / ISI Photos / .)