Saban, Tide keep eyes on ways to innovate

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- On the face of it, the University of Alabama is happily living in its past. Flagging oak trees wave to blushing red brick buildings on its campus, a place where even new structures are made to appear old.

Nick Saban
Courtesy of UA athleticsAdaptation and battling complacency have been constant goals for Alabama and Nick Saban.
Tradition isn't just important to the university, it's essential to its existence. A small cemetery rests adjacent to Bryant-Denny Stadium, a morbid reminder that everything is built on top of something else. Across the street from the Mal Moore Athletic Facility and the football offices is the somber Bryant Museum, a shadowy shrine to the legend of the Crimson Tide and its houndstooth-capped coach.

But just because the crimson "A" of Alabama resonates as one of the founding signatures in college football history doesn't mean it's a program with its feet stuck in the mud. When coach Nick Saban resurrected the program in 2007, he did so with an eye on the future, not the past. Three national championships in the past four years is a testament to the fleet-footedness of the program under his direction. The jerseys don't change, but everything else is open to suggestion.

If Alabama hasn't been on the cutting edge the past six years, it hasn't been far behind.

Just weeks before Alabama was to face Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game, UA football trainer Jeff Allen sent a message to Catapult Sports, a leading innovator in the world of athlete analytics. In it, Allen expressed the program's desire to test drive the company's technology, a package of wearable GPS monitors, gyroscopes and magnetometers capable of measuring an athlete's movement and exertion during competition. With Catapult's help, Allen and the coaching staff could see in numbers and figures what they previously sensed with only a trained eye and a gut feeling.

"There's a lot of advanced algorithms that come into play," Catapult Sports media and marketing manager Boden Westover said. "It combines the data from three components and spits out one number called 'player load' and that one number is pretty much a summary of how hard that athlete is working."

Catapult got its start in the Australian Football League in 2006 and has slowly crept into the American sports market in recent years. Four NFL franchises and seven college football programs are currently contracted with Catapult Sports, according to the company's website. But there are approximately five more American clients that have signed confidentiality agreements.

According to Catapult's study, the use of the technology helped cut down on soft tissue injuries by some 30 percent. When you're talking about the growing number of ligament tears in college football, that statistic can be very appealing. Just last season Alabama lost three key players to major knee injuries.

"It's kind of the next step in finding something that helps you gain an edge," Catapult Sports scientist Ethan Owens said. "They don't want people to know they're using it because for them they know it's something competitive."

The company doesn't advertise, rather it relies on word-of-mouth referrals, which is how Allen and Alabama heard of their existence. During the course of interviews, UA expressed its desire to keep its association with Catapult Sports out of the public eye, which is why the company's representatives spoke mostly in generalities. UA used the technology on a trial basis this spring and will decide whether to sign a contract sometime in the near future.

Whether or not Alabama works with Catapult Sports is almost beside the point, though. Just the fact that the No. 1 team in the country is trying new things to gain a competitive edge sends a message that should frighten the rest of college football: Alabama isn't slowing down.

This was illustrated in the wake of the proposed recruiting deregulation by the NCAA. Before the new rules ever took effect, Alabama hired a former head coach and ace recruiter in Kevin Steele as its director of player personnel and signed a prominent high school coach with ties to the Mobile, Ala., region as its new director of player development. In March, Alabama lured former Ole Miss coordinator of recruiting development Tyler Siskey to Tuscaloosa to serve as an associate director of player personnel.

The moves caught the attention of teams across the country. Texas coach Mack Brown opened up a position as director of player personnel on his staff in February and intimated that Alabama's forward thinking in the area of recruiting staffing was part of his decision. Brown then hired former Alabama associate director of football operations Patrick Suddes for the role.

Even when Alabama is playing catch-up, it never seems that far behind. While other schools such as Tennessee and Oklahoma State have upgraded facilities faster, UA hasn't taken long to catch up. The Tide's new $9 million, 37,000-square-foot weight room was unveiled in February, some five months after construction officially began on it. Ground was broken on the facility before the Board of Trustees ever gave the green light to the project.

A positively giddy Scott Cochran, Alabama's veteran strength and conditioning coach, called it, "The biggest, baddest weight room in the country -- no question about it. Everything is state-of-the-art. Everything we have in here is the best of the best."

Currently, a construction team is busy turning the old weight room site into a new players lounge and meeting room that will give Alabama an even more unnecessary edge in recruiting. And after all, that's where the root of the program's success comes from. It's no coincidence that two years after Saban inked his first signing class he won his first national championship, led by his first major recruiting coup in Mark Ingram, whom Saban pulled away from in-state favorite Michigan State in 2008.

Consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes are just the start, though. Even when it comes to recruiting players, Saban and his staff analyzing weaknesses and forcing change. By signing "fast-twitch pass-rushing athletic" defensive linemen, as Saban described them, he believes his defense will be better equipped to slow down quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and others that have been able to exploit tiny weaknesses in Alabama’s defense.

"We have to be able to adapt to that kind of athleticism and that means we have to be more athletic to do that," Saban said in February.

Alabama has seen what happens to dynasties, and is doing everything it can to remain competitive, whether that means adapting its schemes, finding new ways to attract recruits or simply being open to an idea out of left field. Rather than being mesmerized with its success, the program is finding ways to challenge itself and outwit opponents.

Even with so much history around it, Alabama isn’t resting on its laurels.

Alex Scarborough | email

Alabama/SEC reporter

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