HOUSTON -- At practice, Houston Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson sometimes trots over to a tent, pitched between fields, that protects the team's sports science computers from the unrelenting sun of a Houston summer.
He's still recovering from surgeries on his foot and wrist this offseason, and the data accumulating on those machines -- thousands of numbers every day -- is helping his comeback bid. Every day in practice, he and other players wear technology that tracks their bodies. After practice, he and his fellow defensive backs compare their numbers.
"I'm always interested in my top speed and the explosive movements that you do, just to gauge how hard I'm working," Johnson said. "And then, when you have statistics like that you can set goals for yourself. I'm just a competitive guy and always looking for ways to better myself."
In April the Texans joined the ranks of NFL teams embracing this kind of data. General manager Rick Smith created a sports science department, led by Erik Korem, who was previously the University of Kentucky's High Performance coordinator. The titles are relatively new, even 10 years ago you'd never see teams creating such positions. The the work is also new. With it, the Texans are hoping to give themselves an extra edge, an edge they're hoping others won't find.
"It is new and it's emerging," Smith said. "And the fact that we have spent a considerable amount of time, effort, energy and resources on it, yeah, some of it is proprietary."
Secrecy and paranoia are common in the NFL at most levels of their operation, but that's amplified with the Texans where sports science is involved. Having acquiesced to a few media requests for Korem last week, Smith made clear his own personal parameters.
"I'm not interested necessarily in letting everybody know all the stuff that we're doing," Smith said. "So beyond that I'm not going to get into real detail about what we're doing."
Korem sat beside Smith, free to discuss his own background -- sports science piqued his interest as a walk-on at Texas A&M, then took him to Australia to study in the hotbed of the fledgling industry, and finally brought him back home where he implemented programs at Florida State and then Kentucky. Even then Smith watched, with his arms crossed and his body turned slightly toward Korem. At any query for specifics, Korem instinctively turned toward Smith, the man who hired him in April.
What do the players wear?
"We don't want to go into specifics about everything, but one thing they wear is Catapult," Korem said. "What do they do? What do they do on the field? That's one of the pieces, one of the data streams that we collect."
Catapult is an Australian analytics company. Their tracker fits around players' shoulders and chest like a high-tech sports bra.
Could he offer an example of a program he implemented for another institution based on this data collection?
"Mmmm I don't know," Smith said, brows furrowed. "I don't necessarily want to go there."
Had his program helped any player with a specific issue?
"I wouldn't want to go there either," Korem said.
Every day the thousands of numbers they collect are provided to Smith and Texans head coach Bill O'Brien. It can tell them how many miles a player runs during one practice, or what's causing a rash of hamstring injuries. Beyond the tracking devices, the Texans also collect information about the players' sleeping and nutritional habits.
So far the data hasn't changed the way the Texans operate practice or work their players because they have such a small sample size. The offseason had just 10 organized team activity practices and two minicamp practices.
"At this point, we're monitoring it," O'Brien said. "We're definitely looking at the data, but I think it'll really come into play during training camp and during the fall."
Some players embrace it more than others.
"I think it helps for sure, but I'm from the country," receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. "Just go out there and play football."
He's not alone in that instinct.
Defensive end J.J. Watt, uses technology to help focus his own individual workouts, and sees the value of what the Texans are doing. But he views the data as a supplemental tool.
"I think it's important, there's no question, but also there's a very big component where an athlete just knows their body," Watt said. "Listen to your body, train your body how you know to train it. That's the one thing about athletes, everyone's different. There's no set way for every single athlete to train."
Linebacker Brian Cushing has tracked his heart rate on his own to better understand his recovery from games.
"You can never learn enough, especially when it comes to football, the human body and the recovery process," Cushing said. "Because we know it's a race to be as healthy as you possibly can to get to the next Sunday again, sometimes Thursday. Anything we can do to help each other and bounce back as quickly as possible is only going to help this team more."
That's where Korem comes in. The Texans' three-man department includes Korem, sports performance coordinator Steve Smith and an intern. Smith said the idea for the department started about 18 months ago.
They're starting slowly with what data they collect and distribute. They don't want to inundate players and coaches with data they don't yet understand. Their goals, though, are expansive.
"The real art is creating personalized programs," Korem said. "What is the coach going to find useful? What is the player?"
Those answers, they hope, will offer a clandestine advantage.