FRISCO, Texas — It took five years but North Dakota State running back Ty Brooks finally admitted he wasn’t the fastest player on the team. That happened earlier this week when he gave the No. 1 billing to receiver Christian Watson.
“Shoot, Christian is probably faster, you heard it here, Christian is fast,” Brooks said.
Brooks’ admission blew some of his teammates away in the fact they thought they would never hear him say it.
“Christian is up there," Bison quarterback Trey Lance said. "He can take off. You saw Ty, if Ty gives the dude credit for being fast he’s gotta be fast because Ty doesn’t give a whole lot of credit.”
How fast? Watson topped out at running 23 mph this year, approaching the speed limit of most of the streets in Fargo. Receiver Phoenix Sproles hit 20 mph in one game. When Kobe Johnson returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Youngstown State, his top speed on the play was 20.6 mph.
It’s the result of a GPS tracker that at least 30 Bison players have worn in practice and games this season. It’s turned into a fun competition between the players, although the purpose of the devices are more about injury prevention than speed.
About a year ago, head coach Matt Entz said the program was looking for ways to help prevent the nuisance injuries like hamstring pulls, something that that bogged down former Bison receiver Darrius Shepherd during his career.
“It goes back to Darrius Shepherd and my concern was I didn’t want to be in the same situation going into the 2019 season,” Entz said.
With a possible lack of depth facing the young wide receiver corps coming into this season, any injury could further curtail the Bison offense. That brought Entz to the GPS tracker, which is worn with a harness-type of device on the upper body.
“We have a supporter of the program who is very much involved in the analytics of the game,” Entz said. “So we started to contact some people.”
They contacted people at the University of Oklahoma, University of Iowa, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin to see how they used GPS with their programs.
The theory is to try to control and maintain the wear and tear on players’ bodies. It not only measures speed, but change of direction, heart rate, high-work sprinting that is considered anything 18 mph or more and volume of work.
Assistant strength and conditioning coach Eric Perkins is the techie behind the operation. He was even expected to have his iPad at Thursday’s practice before the Saturday clash with James Madison for the Division I FCS national title.
For instance, it’s possible cornerback Marquise Bridges could have had his “aggressive change of directions” measured.
More than game and practice data, Entz said the GPS trackers are valuable for rehabilitating injuries. For instance, if an athlete is told to run at 65 percent capacity, the GPS tracker can immediately determine that.
“It gives us immediate feedback, either you can or cannot get to that number,” Entz said.
Johnson said his goal is to get to 22 or 23 mph before he’s done with his Bison career. Watson may have peaked at 23 mph, but he said he’s consistently been around 22 mph.
“Getting the stat tracking device was a big thing for us this year,” Watson said. “It helps to see if our guys are healthy, see if you have the same strides you had at the beginning of the year.”
After two years of battling injuries, Watson is showing what 22 to 23 mph finally looks like in a Bison uniform. Montana State found out on consecutive touchdown plays of 75 and 70 yards in the semifinal victory at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. Bobcat secondary players appeared to have the angle on Watson to tackle him, but he sprinted right past them.
He’s not high on the reception-per-game list, but his 34 catches have gone for 732 yards, an average of 21.5 yards per catch.
“We’re not hiding it,” Entz said of the GPS results. “It’s a little bit of competition as to who is the fastest or who can accelerate the quickest. That is good information to have. It’s black and white; there is no arguing about who is the fastest.”
Lance said he hasn’t paid attention to his speed. It hasn’t made its way to the offensive line, yet. Entz said the hope is to add more devices to his program. Senior offensive guard Zack Johnson said he wouldn’t mind seeing data on “how heavy his legs were getting.”
“But it helps our receivers to see if they’re going too hard or not going too hard,” Johnson said.
The technology, however, comes with a warning from Entz. Coaches and players can gather all the data they want, he said, but GPS doesn’t direct a player into the end zone.
“You still have to make plays and football still comes down to making plays,” he said.