Notre Dame using holistic approach to fixing injury issues

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Drue Tranquill has played two seasons at Notre Dame and has torn two ACLs, limiting the safety to 14 games. As if rehabbing both knees weren’t trouble enough, he was tasked this spring with a more tedious assignment.

He was told to track his hours of sleep. And quality of sleep. And meals. And energy level, along with any looming tests or assignments or anything else that may be weighing on him away from the football field.

This assignment wasn’t limited to Tranquill or his many teammates recovering from an injury-plagued 2015 Irish season. All players had wellness questionnaires they had to fill out, uploading the information to smartphone apps in an effort to track what correlation, if any, there was between one’s overall well-being and on-field performance.

“It was a burden at first because we had to run a few times because guys weren’t filling their wellness questionnaire out,” Tranquill said. “But I think it’s something that some players sometimes see at the beginning of, ‘Oh man, it’s just another thing they’re making us do.’ But I think the coaches understand the value in it. I think we understand the value in it now.”

For Tranquill, that value could be a healthy season as a starter. For others, it can mean something as simple as taking that extra rep in practice or cutting it back after a grueling workout.

For the Notre Dame staff, it’s one of many ways to condense all of the available information and technology at their disposal and learn a little more about how their players’ bodies work -- a proactive attack for a program that has seen its depth eroded in each of the past three seasons because of injuries.

Three weeks into last season, Notre Dame lost six players from its two-deep to season-ending injuries. By season’s end, that number grew to double digits -- and that doesn’t even account for star linebacker Jaylon Smith, who tore multiple knee ligaments in the Fiesta Bowl.

The 2014 Irish entered their bowl game with 11 regulars having missed a combined 44 games. The 2013 squad entered winter with nine regulars having missed 44 games.

“With my want and desire to manage injuries, I felt like the best way to do it would to be using a wellness dashboard for nutrition, sleep, soreness -- so we could be proactive in the treatment of all of our injuries or potential injuries that we may have, as well as their weight, mood, all of those things,” coach Brian Kelly said. “So this was just another step toward that.”

Kelly’s right-hand man of 13 years, director of football strength and conditioning Paul Longo, worked this offseason with Duncan French, whom the school hired in January as director of performance sciences, a department-wide post that has helped bridge the art and science of player development.

Longo said the simple job of jotting down one’s state of comfort has alerted all to how daily habits can have crucial big-picture implications.

While conceding that many injuries aren’t preventable -- Tranquill, for instance, tore his second ACL after landing awkwardly during a celebration -- Kelly said Irish coaches have done a better job reading all the data available to them, a credit to French’s rather straightforward philosophy: Never give a coach two pieces of information.

“You can’t extrapolate all the science, but we can take bits and pieces of the science and make it digestible for the players and the coaches so they’ll use it,” Kelly said. “Because if you give them everything, they’re going to put their hands up -- ‘I don’t understand it.’ It’s like sixth-grade biology class.”

Said Longo, who’s entering his 30th year as a college strength coach: “It’s such a business that things are popping up every day and you’ve got to make some really good decisions on what you’re looking to do, what you’re looking to get out of it and how long you’re going to use that particular technology. It’s almost like an iPhone 1 to an iPhone 7. It changes that fast.”

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s concern was the flavor-of-the-month basis the department seemed to be investing in when it came to technology. Catapult GPS monitors may be the simplest example of that information overload. Notre Dame experimented with GPS devices on several players in 2014, but only recently did the program begin developing strategies for players based on their GPS numbers.

“You’ve got to be able to take the data from the GPS tracker and convert it into a red-yellow-green chart that says: OK, these 10 athletes probably maxed out on exertion yesterday, these five were exactly where we want them to be and these six didn’t do much,” Swarbrick said. “You can’t take in all the data and charts and say: ‘Well, here’s yesterday.’”

Like Tranquill, cornerback Shaun Crawford entered spring coming off an ACL tear. Upon his March return to the field, the redshirt freshman starter said the training staff deemed his practice workload too heavy.

“My first day was really too high for it to be my first day back from ACL [surgery],” Crawford said. “So the next day, they brought me down, took some reps off. So I think that’s great -- without that, we wouldn’t know really. So conserving players, I think that’s good. And also that would help with injury prevention. Don’t want to wear our top players out, really.”

So much of this is tailored to the individual. Tranquill said the biggest on-field correlation he’s noticed stems from a quality night of sleep -- which, he notes, is different from quantity of sleep. Defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, meanwhile, finds it weird that he’s had several productive practices after nights of little sleep.

As long as football remains a contact sport, injuries will happen. But Notre Dame is hoping a somewhat holistic approach will get its players thinking about the 21 hours a day they’re away from the facilities, and that the streamlining of so many moving parts will offer the Irish a season in which they can rely on their next-man-in philosophy a little less.

“Certain kids recover faster than other kids,” Longo said. “Obviously if there’s other stressors in their life, that takes away from their pool of recovery and is not a pool of recovery for life and a pool of recovery for football. So you can kind of tweak it a little bit in different ways, and I think it’s crucial here at Notre Dame with the challenges that they have academically as well as travel and all the other things that we’re challenged with.”