Brian Kelly knew something needed to change.
When Notre Dame’s head coach exited the Blue-Gold Game last April he couldn’t shake that four-game November skid when losses ranged from gut punches to disembowelment. He’d watched Everett Golson tune him out. He’d watched a young defense respond to Brian VanGorder with blank stares. All that came in the shadow of the University’s academic misconduct investigation that sidelined five players, including KeiVarae Russell.
Yes, the Music City Bowl proved to be a successful salvage operation. But Kelly needed to avoid disaster-relief scenarios entirely. That meant getting a better grip on his roster in ways more scientific than trust falls and team building exercises.So in May, about the same time Golson bolted Notre Dame for Florida State, Kelly reached out to Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin. The two share an agent and Kelly had heard about an innovate technology Sumlin used called APTUS, advertised as a breakthrough in understanding how players learn.
“The day becomes so short,” Kelly told Irish Illustrated. “We went through this last year, ‘How do we get our kids to communicate better?’ Maybe we have to communicate better with them so they can communicate better to their teammates.”
A week after that Sumlin call, APTUS Executive Vice President Craig Flowers, also a retired Army Colonel, flew to South Bend to meet with Kelly and associate athletic director for football Chad Klunder.
It took Flowers barely a half hour to win over the football program.
In fact, Kelly and Klunder were so moved that they made sure the rest of the athletic department got APTUS too. In the summer weeks that followed APTUS assessed 160 Notre Dame athletes spread across 12 sports, including the entire football roster.
The outpouring of data on how players learn let Kelly get inside the head of Malik Zaire in ways unthinkable just a few years ago. Now, instead of teaching three quarterbacks with one lesson plan, he can customize it by player.
The results have Kelly confident about his roster grasp like never before.
Here’s how Notre Dame got its educational edge.
‘We have to adapt’
Don’t call APTUS a test. Flowers will interrupt you if you do.
How the six-year old company based in Austin, Texas works its mental magic is more video game than exam. First, football players are fitted with headphones that loop play calls and stadium noise. The assessment begins on iPads with 10 exercises that offer seven measurements: Competitiveness, confidence, detail, grit, focus, self-control and simplicity.
“Once they showed me how they did it, I was all in,” Kelly said. “It helped us in the way we teach.”
The data produced from the 30-minute program is translated into three reports. One is written in “coach-speak” and sent to the staff. Another goes directly to the player. A third is written for academic use. For Notre Dame that meant the Academic Services for Student Athletes department could teach its tutors how to better work with athletes.
Notre Dame followed Texas A&M, Rice, Kentucky Minnesota, Tennessee and Kansas into the APTUS world. It’s hard to believe more won’t follow.
“We will validate some things that coaches see and think they know about a player’s mental makeup. That’s valuable,” Flowers said. “I can tell you the players that coach Kelly had already identified as remarkable processors of information, we were able to validate some things that he suspected about his leaders on that team.”
At quarterback, that meant Kelly got a deeper understanding of Zaire and DeShone Kizer through APTUS. The data, known as a BLUF Report, revealed that Zaire learned best audibly and on the field. Kizer was the opposite. He picked up the offense best when Mike Sanford drew it up the meeting rooms.
That information meant Sanford, who took the APTUS assessment himself, could customize meetings to each quarterback.
“I personally witnessed an up-and-coming coach connect with players in a way previously thought impossible,” Flowers said. “I’m very convinced that very soon if you’re not using APTUS, you’re not fully developing your players.”
Flowers won’t reveal names when it comes to other cases, but he’s got plenty to tell.
There was an SEC offensive lineman who scored well in confidence but low in accuracy. That meant he was the kind of player who’d willingly take coaching and insist he understood, only to be found out on game day. In other words, when he told coaches “I got it” he really didn’t.
There was a kicker who valued being part of the team but played for a coach who relegated him to another field during practice. After APTUS, the coach started to work the kicker into practices, holding tackling dummies and charting 7-on-7 stats.
“Oh my God, I’m ruining my kicker,” Flowers said the coach told him. “He made a 180-degree shift in how he treated him.”
Or there was the defensive back at an SEC school who allowed a couple touchdowns, prompting an assistant coach to meet with him every morning at 7:30 a.m. to review schemes. Except that player didn’t learn best in meeting rooms, he learned best on the field.
“What a waste of time when you had the answer right in front of you,” Flowers said. “They made the adjustment with that player. The coach told me that player started delivering what they wanted all along.”
Put it another way, APTUS revealed the right buttons Kelly could press with Zaire long before kickoff against Texas. For those who watched Notre Dame the past five years, Kelly didn’t have that intel with Everett Golson, Tommy Rees or Dayne Crist.
“Great leaders will start with themselves,” Flowers said. “That’s what Brian Kelly, Kevin Sumlin … have done. Oh gosh, this starts with us. We have to adapt to the talent on our team.”
Stronger Academic Support
In July while Flowers met with coaches and players – one of four trips to Notre Dame in the past four months – Dr. Erich Dierdoff, Chief Behavioral Science Advisor for APTUS, met with Notre Dame’s academic services department for student-athletes.
The confab with associate director Adam Sargent would give ASSA a new approach to tutoring, most notably a football team that’s lost frontline players to academic issues in three straight off-seasons despite its stellar graduation rate.
The school’s army of tutors are students, not educational experts. But now they have access to high-level analysis about how those players learn best.
“Awesome,” Kelly said. “It’s helped us with our freshmen in the bridge program. We have a lot of student tutors and it really gives them a better insight on what kind of learners the players are.”
Kelly has been public about Notre Dame’s need to improve academic support, calling every player on his roster “at-risk” after losing Golson, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, Greg Bryant and Russell to academic issues. Those headlines didn’t create a new negative recruiting headline against Notre Dame as much as they increased its font size and put it in bold type.
It’s why APTUS will likely be worked into recruiting presentations for Notre Dame moving forward. Flowers is already part of recruiting materials for other clients.
“It’s about discovering how your son develops uniquely,” Flowers said. “When you come to Notre Dame, you’re going to be empowered with objective data about how you learn. That’s a powerful thing for a mom or dad when they’re sending their son 1,500 miles away to take on this kind of challenge.”
The next frontier for APTUS could be assessing actual recruits, meaning Notre Dame could find players who learn how Kelly’s staff wants to teach opposed to creating four different practice plans for 10 different receivers.
But that’s another intellectual discovery for another day.
For now Kelly can take comfort in his new roster understanding.
The corporate motto at APTUS is “Winning The Mental Game.” Notre Dame hopes this off-season of learning about learning will help the program win much more than that.