If you’re looking for evidence of just how far Billy Napier will go to think outside of the box and snag every possible advantage for the Gators program, look no further than his hiring of Joe Danos.
The New Orleans native joined UF after spending the last two years in Miami. Not with the Hurricanes or the Dolphins, though. Instead, he worked for Inter Miami Futbol Club of Major League Soccer as the head strength and conditioning coach. That’s not exactly a common place to find support staffers for a major program like UF.
Danos’ title at Florida is “director of player athletic development.” If you have absolutely no idea what his job entails by reading his title, you’re not alone. After all, isn’t every single member of the staff responsible for developing the players in some capacity?
Danos described his role as something of a liaison between the medical staff and the strength and conditioning staff and on-field coaches. When a player is cleared to return to workouts following an injury, he usually does so on a limited basis. They’re going to gradually ease him back into things instead of asking him to do everything that he did before the injury right away.
So, instead of that player essentially wasting time by watching his healthy teammates do various exercises in the weight room or on the practice field, they work with Danos on a workout that has been tailored to their specific injury situation.
That’s why it was common to see a handful of players exit the practice facility shortly before the media was let in for the open periods of practice this spring. Those players were heading back to the Swamp to do strength workouts under Danos’ supervision. Once the new Heavener Football Training Center is completed, it will be a much more efficient process.
“They don’t do the strength and conditioning program that healthy guys do, so they’d be quite a hindrance to the program if they were all in there with the healthy guys,” Danos said. “So, during strength and conditioning, they’re getting treatment with sports med. During practice, they’re doing strength rehab with me.”
Danos said that one of the most important aspects of his job is to make sure that injured players are still exercising the parts of their bodies that are healthy. If a guy has an injured left arm, they’ll take things a bit easy on that arm to avoid reinjury, but they’ll try to still exercise the rest of their bodies the same way that they would pre-injury. The last thing that they want to do is allow other parts of their bodies to become weak and susceptible to injury just because they’ve got one injured arm.
“I think one of the really important things is to make sure the guys are working all those areas of their body that are healthy, working them aggressively and really keeping the body calloused, if you will, so that when they do get turned back over to the full program, it’s a smooth transition,” he said. “So, you can make things kind of easy and almost a vacation when an injury happens, or you can train aggressively and make sure we’re training hard around that injured area.”
Of course, as with pretty much everything in sports these days, technology plays an increasingly large role in injury rehabilitation. Danos doesn’t just watch the athletes run and lift weights and say, “Yep, he looks back to normal.” There are now ways to quantify what normal looks like.
For example, the players wear Catapult GPS tracking devices. These monitors record information such as a player’s maximum and average speeds and how high they jump. So, if a player gets injured, they can look at how he typically performed before the injury and formulate a plan for how to get him back to that level.
“It’s a good practice not to put them to full-go [after returning to practice],” Danos said. “So, when we say that a guy is limited, we have objective data to know what that limited actually is.”
This is a data-driven and goal-oriented approach to rehab that is new to the Gators and relatively new to Danos as well. His background is as a strength and conditioning coach, not as a scientist or an analytics guru.
Prior to his time in professional soccer, he worked on the strength staffs at LSU (his alma mater), SMU, Florida State and the New York Giants.
Danos said that European sports teams embraced a more technologically driven style of rehab 5-10 years before it became commonplace in the U.S. He mentioned former FSU and current Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher as one of the early adapters of the sports science movement in college football, along with current UCLA coach Chip Kelly.
Danos worked for Fisher at FSU from 2010-12 and likes to think that he played at least a small role in the Seminoles winning the national championship in 2013.
“I’m a strength and conditioning coach by trade, but, probably around 2010, a lot of this stuff started to bleed into American football,” he said. “Just doing research and opening dialogue with people from around the world, you start to realize, ‘OK, this could be applicable.’ I think now you’ll find that some of these technologies are used heavily by people in sports med, strength and conditioning.”
As is the case with anything new, Danos has had to make some tweaks and adjustments to his process over the last decade. Having all of this expensive technology and all of these numbers is great, but you still have to apply that information in a way that’s most advantageous for the players.
“It’s cleaning up the process of how you’re going to operate it,” he said. “‘How are we going to put these things on guys? How are we going to make sure that what we’re tracking is valid?’ There’s ways that you could easily get very bad data if you’re not doing it the way that it’s supposed to be done. So, more so getting the processes down and then getting a feel for what this looks like under a particular coach.”
Danos enjoyed working with Inter Miami Futbol Club, but he’s never considered himself a soccer fan. American football is the sport that he most likes to work in. So, when Napier offered him the opportunity to return to the sport in December, it was an easy decision for him.
He’d never worked with any members of the staff before, but he did have some mutual connections with director of strength and conditioning Mark Hocke, who also calls the Big Easy home. He believes that connection is what put him on Napier’s radar.
Danos might not have been a conventional hire in a couple of different ways, but he’s excited about the opportunity he has in Gainesville.
“For me, American football is my passion,” Danos said. “I was working outside the sport that I feel most passionate about, and, when you step away, you really realize it.
“I missed football a lot, period. Getting outside of football, it was OK for a moment, but, yeah, it was not this football. So, to get back in and to get back in at a program like this is a no-brainer. I missed it a lot.”