Pacing LSU’s sideline during the wild win over Ole Miss last Saturday, Shelly Mullenix kept checking her phone.
It only looked like she was checking her phone. It wasn’t her phone at all.
Mullenix, LSU’s senior associate athletic trainer, carried with her a smartphone receiving, not texts, emails or calls, but alerts transmitted from players’ mouthpieces. These alerts told her what LSU players were sustaining the biggest blows to the head in real time.
The phone would buzz in her pocket. She’d slip it out and glance at the screen: “Travis Dickson: 34, 68, 180,” one alert might read.
The first number in that string is the G-force of a hit LSU’s tight end sustained on the last play.
“It was neat,” Mullenix said earlier this week from her office in the LSU training room. “It’s like having a second set of eyes.”
For the last three months, LSU players have served as the guinea pigs for the newest method of testing head trauma in football: mouthpieces.
This isn’t your standard mouthpiece. These are “Impact Sensing Mouthguards,” the official name given to them by their producer, i1 Biometrics.
“Think of this like a smartphone in your mouth,” said Jesse Harper, the CEO and president of i1 Biometrics.
About 20 LSU players currently wear these mouthpieces in place of normal team-issued ones during practice and in games.
While activated in a player’s mouth, the mouthpieces record the location and force of a hit to that person’s head each play. The data is sent live to Mullenix’s smartphone as well as to a laptop on the LSU sideline that’s connected to a 4-foot tall receiving device.
Later, that data will be examined. During a game, Mullenix and other trainers, made aware of hits in real time, can attend to players who have taken the biggest blows.
“You can go have a conversation with them,” said Sarah Murray, another athletic trainer who’s in charge of setting up the sideline receiving equipment before games. “You can talk to them, say, ‘Hey, you feel OK?’”
Spearheaded by LSU’s director of athletic training, Jack Marucci, the school agreed over the summer to be a testing dummy for i1 Biometrics’ new product. Players began wearing the mouthpieces at the start of fall camp.
The Washington-based company will begin marketing the product this spring, Harper said. They’ll sell each mouthpiece — and a charging case — for $199. They’re targeting individual athletes and college, high school and youth teams who’d like this rare kind of monitoring.
LSU is the only school in the nation using mouthpiece-sensing equipment, and Harper said i1 Biometrics is the only company producing any such product. The school’s deal with the company doesn’t include financial benefits, Marucci said.
This is the school’s second such trial run with head-trauma equipment. Last year, players wore a 3-inch long purple device on their helmets from the Maryland-based company Brain Sentry. A helmet, though, deflects blows, and the chip produced unsteady data.
The mouthpiece is more accurate, Marucci said, and produces more detailed data.
So what happens to all of this data? Marucci plans to send it to the NCAA in hopes of eliminating two-a-days during fall camp, where most of the hard-hitting is being detected.
LSU had six concussions during this year’s fall camp, Marucci said without releasing names. Two players — one fullback Connor Neighbors — have suffered concussions during the regular season.
“Concussion is a huge concern right now,” said Mark West, i1 Biometrics national sales manager. “We want to help make the sport safe. We don’t want football to go away. There’s the sentiment, ‘Well, it’s unsafe. Let’s just quit.’”
Already LSU athletic trainers and i1 Biometric staffers are seeing mass amounts of data pour in from this 12-week trial run with the Tigers — a period that will continue through the end of the season.
Linemen sustain the most collisions, specifically those on the offensive line, guys who take hits each snap. Those blows are around 20-30 Gs.
For perspective, heading a soccer ball produces a G-force of about 20-30, said Stefan Dumas, the department head of biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech.
Concussions in college football players are normally seen when a G-force of 80-100 is reached, experts say.
The real concern for trainers are the linemen and blockers who take continuous small blows to the head.
“We’re more worried about the sub-concussive blows,” Murray said. “How many of those you can take until you get a concussion?”
Dickson is an example. When in the game, he primarily serves as a blocker.
Dickson saw the computer data following a fall practice in August. One thing shocked him: “You realize how hard your head hits the turf sometimes,” he said. “That day, I went up for a ball and came down on my head, and they showed it to me. They said it was a pretty good one.”
Dickson couldn’t remember the G-force, but a “decent” impact, Marucci said, is 25 Gs.
Some players had issues with the mouthpieces. Tight end Dillon Gordon, for one, doesn’t wear one anymore.
When biting down, the impact-sensing mouthguards can feel harder than normal mouthpieces. Also, the mouthguards have a small rectangular plastic piece protruding from their front. That’s where the microprocessor, accelerometer and gyroscope are housed, Harper said.
The piece is made to break away — just in case a player’s helmet is knocked off and then he suffers a secondary blow to the face. A mouthguard is activated once a player slips it into his mouth, using the same technology as a smartphone’s screen is activated at a person’s touch.
“There’s no blinking lights, no buttons to push, nothing a player has to do except to put the mouthguard in and play,” Harper said.
i1 Biometrics is on its third version of the mouthguard during a trial period that stretches back to high school teams last season.
The company recently perfected the mouthguards enough to present them to a group of reporters and begin the marketing process. Of all places, it happened in Baton Rouge and in the mouths of LSU football players.
Said Gordon: “It’s pretty cool.”