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Data has replaced gut feelings in Gophers’ preparation for Big Ten grind

Minnesota is collecting data on how much players are exerting on the field and when they might be on the verge of an injury

PJ-Fleck-Minnesota-Colorado-2022
Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck on the sidelines during a Sept. 17, 2022, game against Colorado at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Matt Blewett / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — The 2022 Minnesota Gophers defense is the fastest it has been in head coach P.J. Fleck’s six seasons at the helm. That’s not just a feeling, but something backed up in data collected by the program.

Well then, who’s the fastest player on that side of the ball?

That question was met with a quick wit.

“I think it says Trill Carter is the fastest,” linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin teased about the 6-foot-2, 300-pound defensive tackle after the season opener on Sept. 1.

Carter seized a chance to reply this week and was up for some fun himself. “For sure,” he said, then offered an exaggerated 40-yard dash time. “Definitely around 4.6 (seconds),” he continued, before growing more honest. “4.8 at best.”

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But seriously, the Gophers are not only collecting but using data generated by Catapult Systems on how fast players run, how much they are exerting on the field and when they might be red-lining and on the verge of a muscle injury.

This data isn’t new, including within the Gophers program. It dates to former coach Jerry Kill’s era in 2013.

Fleck is putting it to use like he never has before. Last year, he acknowledged he doesn’t use analytics much when making in-game decisions, such as when to go for it on fourth down, but he has embraced player-tracking data this fall.

“The data is telling you something,” Fleck said. “Are you willing to listen?”

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Fleck had a series of spreadsheets and printouts on his desk a few days after the season-opening 38-0 win over New Mexico State. The Gophers played their opener on a Thursday night, then gave players days off on Friday and Saturday, so their routine Sunday night practice should have been fast.

There were six players eclipsing 19 miles per hour in the session. But that is not what is deemed most important.

One of the printouts had a spreadsheet of each player’s output down on a scale up to 100 and as detailed as the hundredth decimal point. Another page held a chart for the Gophers’ outputs on that particular day in previous years. Fleck can then cross reference his practice scripts for what was done in previous years to get a better grip on how the workload and results relate.

Against New Mexico State, for instance, the Gophers defense was on the field for a program-record low of 33 snaps, so that contributed to them increasing their work load during that following Sunday’s practice.

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The data was higher in the 62-10 win over Western Illinois, and higher again after the 49-7 win over Colorado last weekend, so they cut down on last Sunday’s practice.

Fleck has often praised the dedication of his team, adding that about 40 players stayed after last Sunday’s practice to get in extra work. That’s great, he said, if they aren’t doing a lot of physical work.

How they’ve tinkered with practice loads this fall doesn’t mean the Gophers haven’t been physical in 2022. Fleck said they had more hitting in spring practice than before and added a second scrimmage in fall camp. And they’ve had more practice periods that feature defensive starters against offensive starters.

It’s all preamble to this: The Big Ten opener against Michigan State at 2:30 p.m. at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan.

During practice this week, the Gophers have increased the amount of noise coming from speakers to try to simulate the loud road environment they will face. They have cut down on the seconds available on the play clock to force quarterback Tanner Morgan and Co. to move quicker.

Gophers coordinators Joe Rossi and Kirk Ciarroccca would “like to run 100 more plays in practice, if we could,” Ciarrocca said this week.

But they aren’t making the final call. Fleck does, after the data is combed through and shared by Assistant Director of Athletic Performance Ben Schumacher and Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Dan Nichol.

“There is no way I could read that sheet of data,” Ciarrocca insisted. “I can’t make heads or toe of it, but I think it helps.”

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Before the data, coaches operated on feel.

“Now we have the science behind it,” Ciarrocca said. “Whenever P.J. says we need to pull back, we need to do a few less plays in practice, I know that there is science behind it. I don’t fight it.”

The Gophers will play nine Big Ten games over the next 10 weeks. Short-burst speed will be needed against the Spartans, but using this data is about more than that.

“We’re looking at it like a marathon,” Fleck said, “and not a sprint.”

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