Leistikow: Inside the increasingly advanced world of Iowa's Chris Doyle
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Every morning when an Iowa football player wakes up, he fastens a strap around his chest. Then, with a single push of an app on his cell phone, he performs an invaluable task.
With one daily routine, executed from more than a hundred bedrooms all over town, computers in the offices of Chris Doyle and his strength and conditioning staff are receiving crucial data from each player’s body.
“It tells us exactly how recovered they are from the day before,” Doyle says. “Whether it’s (after) a game, practice or training session. Every day.
“And that’s really been helpful to us.”
As he embarks on his 20th year in perhaps the most crucial role in the Hawkeye football program, Doyle’s job continues to evolve … and become more advanced than ever.
Across the country, every major football program — college or pro — is ramping up its efforts in technology to try to gain an on-field advantage.
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This week, as Iowa began its NCAA-allotted 15 spring practices, Doyle sat down with the Des Moines Register and opened up about the important behind-the-scenes stuff happening inside the walls of the vast Iowa Football Performance Center.
As the conversation unfolded, it became clear just how far Doyle is willing to go to find any edge that’ll help push the Hawkeyes ahead on the field.
The Iowa Edge.
Doyle will never forget a day in 2013 when he walked into head coach Kirk Ferentz’s office and dropped off a report.
“What does this mean?” Ferentz asked.
“I have no idea," Doyle replied.
Doyle chuckles. At that time, he was in the first year of implementing a GPS-tracking technology the program had acquired from an Australian company called GPSports, which had primarily worked with rugby teams.
Then, Iowa was one of maybe three or four American football programs — not even one NFL team was using it — to give this technology a try.
Here’s basically how it works: Players are outfitted daily with a harness and tracking device — the contraption looks like a sports bra — that records (for every player) things such as total yardage covered, heart-rate exertion and how much distance he ran that day at top speed.
And, absolutely: Players wear them under their pads on gamedays, too.
Every single movement a player takes during any on-field activity is pumped into a computer database. And analyzed.
But, Doyle correctly points out: “All the information in the world is useless — unless you can apply it.”
Today, Doyle can overlay data, for example, from the first Tuesday practice of Week 1 in 2013 with the same Tuesday in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
After years of working at it, he believes they’ve figured out how to maximize this comprehensive information to shape the offseason programs that are the life blood of the Hawkeyes' developmental approach.
For example, by looking at the amount of exertion required in the fourth quarter to beat Michigan, Doyle can engineer the summer conditioning program with the idea of building each player toward that precise type of workload by late July.
"The fact that we have five years of data collection,” Doyle says, “that’s what makes it powerful."
Others are catching up. More than 50 FBS programs, including national champion Alabama, use the GPS technology. Many are just a year or two into it, while Iowa is entering Year 6.
Doyle, meanwhile, is always looking for a new edge. There are countless scientific theories in the complex world of strength and conditioning, which is why Doyle says one of the most important parts of his job is knowing when to say "no" to an idea.
Recently, he said "yes" to something he thinks could be groundbreaking.
It’s in the early stages — much like in 2013 with the GPS technology — but Doyle is confident Iowa is the only program in the country to have its own "Force Plate" technology.
A force plate measures how much impact an athlete delivers when jumping or landing. It measures power in the right and left sides. It measures how he absorbs force, how he changes direction — essentially, how his nervous system works.
This isn't 1999 anymore.
“(It) gives us information we need to individualize plyometric training,” Doyle says. “(It tells us) whether a guy would benefit from more resistant plyometric training in contrast to more elasticity training.”
Others are dabbling in force plates, too, trying to figure out how to best apply the data.
Where's Iowa on this?
“I would say we are studying it," Doyle says. "And actively trying to learn from what we see.”
To Iowa, one of the most valuable pieces of monitoring player movement and recovery is that it can red-flag an athlete's lifestyle choices that don't mesh with football.
With the data produced from that morning push of a button, Doyle can determine if he or one of his staff members needs to confront a player.
Hey, your numbers are down. Why?
“He may say, ‘Coach, I’ve had two finals and two papers over the last 10 days.’ Or, he may just look at me,” Doyle says. “And I’ll say, ‘Show me your phone.’”
Doyle might see the player is using excessive data on Snapchat or video games — a sign that the athlete is spending a lot of time “doing nothing,” as he puts it.
Every life decision, especially nutrition and recovery, is analyzed in the prism of what is best for a player’s body and football future. Doyle doesn't apologize for that; he says the program is up-front about its regimented approach.
Still, it's a lesson that can be eye-opening for first-year players.
Let’s look at two high-upside Hawkeyes who were heavily used as true freshmen last fall — offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and defensive end A.J. Epenesa. In high school, Wirfs transitioned into wrestling season after football; Epenesa went into basketball.
This winter, for the first time, they went from football to … intense football.
Every Tuesday after Martin Luther King Day in January, Iowa's winter conditioning program begins. Out of season, the NCAA allows eight hours of strength and conditioning per week per player.
Every minute is used. None is wasted.
“They come to realize quickly that around here,” Doyle says, “you have your foot on the gas football-wise, year-round."
On Wirfs and Epenesa, "you’re looking at guys that have unlimited potential," Doyle continues. "They’re really good football players on the field. But they’re really untapped from a strength and conditioning perspective.
“So what’s going to happen when this guy goes through a full offseason of training — winter, spring, summer? And then you add another year to it. And now, you’re really starting to springboard into, ‘Wow, these kids have futures.’”
What Doyle loves about his job is that highly decorated recruits such as Wirfs and Epenesa get measured the same as walk-ons or two-star prospects.
Every lift or drill is recorded and worth points. Those results are ranked and then posted throughout the football building.
You can’t hide behind a four-star recruiting rating in Doyle’s laboratory.
“The amount of exposure to competition is daily,” Doyle says. “There are no light days. You can’t take a day off. You can’t burn the candle at both ends and try to survive the day. Or you’ll get exposed.”
How does it translate?
Those who fully understand the impact Doyle has on the Hawkeye program say he's worth every penny of his salary, the highest of any strength coach in college football, that'll likely top $700,000 this season.
Yet Doyle also understands: The student-athletes in his building weren't recruited to Iowa to run sprints and lift weights.
They're here to play football.
Because Doyle, by NCAA rule, can spend more time with these athletes than Ferentz or Iowa's 10 assistant coaches, he probably has the best feel for where the program is headed.
So ... can he get a feel now for how good this 2018 team will be?
"We’ve had a good couple of months," he says. "But we won’t know (until fall). You have to run the whole race."
Even in the eight training months leading into the fall of 2015, when Iowa strung together the program's first 12-0 regular season, Doyle wasn't tipped off to the magical season ahead.
Maybe you can look back and see signs, he says, but it's hard to know until the games are played.
"In reality," he says of 2015, "we were probably scared to death every day that we weren’t going to be any good."
The strength-and-conditioning calendar is demanding.
During the spring phase, there are 15 practices (three a week for five weeks) plus three weekly strength and conditioning days. They'll train past the April 20 spring game, until finals week in May. Then comes a short summer break before things ramp up again in June.
That's when incoming freshmen get their first true taste of Hawkeye football and the Doyle program.
The race is relentless.
Doyle, who will turn 50 in June, isn't slowing down. In fact, he's leading the charge.
“It’s fun, because it’s constantly evolving. The people that are willing to get on the cutting edge and continue to explore," he says, "... We can gain an edge."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.