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 this title mean? What does he do?
It’s a fair (and familiar) question.
“The simplest sequel that people, at least in the football field, seem to take right away is that it’s a sports science position,” Rash said. “This seems to work for a lot of people, for whatever reason. Exercise science in general has exploded in the last decade.”
Mixing science and technology with college football has become commonplace these days. Baylor employs several support staff who work directly with different types of technologies and see their application in football.
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“Certainly you see that in programs across the country over the last five years, especially at the Power 5 level,” Rash said. “Embedded in football there is a person who is coordinating the technology needed, who is collecting data, who is synthesizing data, who is maybe creating a realm around it, to explain something to an athlete, to explain something to a performance coach, to a support coach, whatever always. That’s kind of a role I take on in our football program.”
Rash didn’t really want to be a sports scientist. In his soul he wanted to be a strength coach and he still feels rooted in that world. But he has a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology that goes along with his master’s in strength and conditioning studies. When an opportunity arose to move towards applied performance, Rash jumped at it as he was already leaning more in that direction.
Andrew Althoff was his predecessor in this position and served in that capacity under Matt Rhule. When Rhule joined the NFL’s Carolina Panthers ahead of the 2020 season, Althoff joined him, and Rash interviewed and got the open job at Baylor.
He works with several Baylor sports, but when it’s football season he devotes most of his time to working with Dave Aranda and his staff.
One of the most widespread technologies used by soccer players is the Catapult GPS Player Tracker System. GPS technology is fairly familiar to even the most clueless layperson. Golfers use it with their electronic range finders to determine the distance between their ball and the pin. 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 their kids’ whereabouts, and teens rely on the technology when they go to the Find My iPhone app to locate their phone in the clutter of their room . It’s part of our everyday life.
So of course it is only logical that it finds its way onto the football field. The Catapult Trackers are worn by Baylor’s players at every practice session 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 pointed out how many players may have clocked more than 21 or 22 mph during a game. That’s the kind of data coaches (and fans) drool over.
“It’s really eye-catching because people get it right away,” Rash said. “It’s really hard to say a guy is accelerating at four or five meters per square second, nobody really knows what that means. “Is that good, is that bad? What does that mean?’ But when you say a guy ran 22 miles an hour, it’s like, ‘Whoa, that’s good.'”
Still, Rash and Co. use the GPS data to measure more than just a player’s speed. Catapult has developed various algorithm-based metrics to measure things like the power of a lineman’s contact during a block or a defender’s impact during a tackle, Rash said. There is a direction change metric that can prove useful for evaluating running backs and linebackers, who often need to accelerate in tight spaces.
“We really use it as an auditing tool,” Rash said. “Some people would argue that it’s better used for programming, planning, and the like. There is a time and a place for that. But really, the meat and potatoes of what we use it for are audit purposes.”
That means looking at the data and seeing if a player is meeting, exceeding, or falling short of their goals.
“We have the game data, so we know how much a guy is doing,” Rash said. “We know the volume, we know the intensity, how much, how far, how fast. We can quantify all of that.”
Aranda began his coaching career way back in 1995, when this mix of sport and science would probably have been equated with voodoo by old-school football coaches. Yet Baylor’s thoughtful third-year head coach has welcomed 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 a circle,” said Aranda. “Earlier in the year we maybe relied on it too much. … For the first half of the year I probably got off the numbers too much and that’s because I didn’t really feel any energy from training. Those would be the old-school things you could sense before you had numbers. There are guys who come to practice and they will have a sense of it, if this team is there, if they aren’t there, how does it feel.
“Numbers, while good, sometimes I think they support that feeling. I don’t think they replace the feeling of reading it. For the past three weeks and now into week four, the feeling has been there and you have the numbers to be there side by side and I think that’s a positive thing.
force of habit
In addition to the GPS trackers worn by the players, Baylor relies on various other technologies. In the weight room, the footballers regularly jump on force plates. These devices measure how high and how much force a player uses when jumping.
“We’re going to look at a bunch of different metrics when it comes down to it, but the guys all want to know, kind of like mph, they want to know how high they jumped,” Rash said. “We’re going to tell them this right away, which is really cool. But we can see how much eccentric power a guy exhibits, how much concentric power. How much power on the way down, how much power on the way up.”
They track other things too. A player’s weight is a simple piece of data that soccer teams have been collecting since the days of leather helmets. But Rash said it’s often overlooked when it comes to maintaining the health and well-being of the football team.
“Every football program in America does it, but how do you take that body weight information and then couple that to what you see on the GPS, couple that to what you see on the force plates,” Rash said. “Combine that with you talking to a guy and how does he feel? What are some of the things he tells you about what’s going on with him? There is an interplay between all of these things.”
All data is reported back to Aranda and his assistant trainers. Together, with the help of Rash and others, they determine how best to deploy and evaluate them. It helps to speak the coach’s language.
eccentric force? Just tell me if this guy drags or not.
“I’ve been guilty of that in the past,” Rash said. “Sometimes you want to do justice to the numbers and to the science, so you use nomenclature that relates to that. This can sometimes get lost because it’s not part of the everyday slang used in the coaching field.
“Sometimes the mistake is made, well, coaches should learn that somehow to understand it. If I really think that as sports scientists we have to adapt what we say to the coaches so that they understand it and 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 – acts as a kind of translator between the applied performance side and the coach side. He speaks both languages fluently.
As the college football business continues to grow, so will the science and metrics. Rash said they already use the GPS and force plate data to help support a player’s return from injury and he envisions this marriage evolving even more over the next five to 10 years.
Next step: recruitment
Where the next boom is likely to come is in the increased use of technology in evaluating recruits, he said.
“With that data, you can make tremendous progress on the recruiting side,” Rash said. “I think it’s not to be underestimated that if you bring really good players you have really good chances of winning. All in all, if your basic talent level far exceeds your competition without doing anything else, you already have an advantage.
“So to be able to identify kids on the front end because you’re seeing this explosion of wearables at the high school level as well. This data exists for children at this level. … That’s where the really big blast is.”
Even the most ardent Baylor football fan probably couldn’t pick Rash out of the crowd. Ditto for the dozens of others on the support staff. But they are still part of the team.
Rash is happy when technology helps a player reach their potential or when it prevents an injured player from returning to the field too soon. And as with everyone involved in the football program, nothing beats a win on match day.
“It’s great. The amount of work that these guys and these coaches put into it, people think they know, but they really don’t know unless you’re there every day,” Rash said. It’s really great to see all that hard work, time and 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 goes without saying. When you actually achieve that achievement, it’s really, really rewarding.”