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The Grass Beneath Taysom's Feet

Research goes into making a perfect football field

In last year’s football game against Texas, fans were thrilled as Taysom Hill ran over, around and through Longhorn defenders enroute to a record-setting 259-yard, three-touchdown game.

Bryan Hopkins and his undergraduate research assistant, Beth Black, compare roots in their lab.

Bryan Hopkins, a BYU professor of landscape management, was thrilled for another reason: He watched the natural grass surface at LaVell Edwards Stadium perform remarkably well after a two-hour, game-delaying monsoon drenched the field.

“It drained just like it was supposed to,” said Hopkins, the researcher behind making BYU’s field capable of withstanding 300-pound stomping linemen, while also making it look beautiful. “As any fan watching could tell, it certainly didn’t slow the players down. Especially BYU’s players.”

That’s exactly why Hopkins and his team geek out over grass—to make sure Taysom and his teammates can perform on the field. But it wasn’t always this way—Hopkins mostly researched agricultural foods such as potatoes, corn and beans until he got a phone call from Bronco Mendenhall in 2008.

“Bronco’s call began the process of me switching over to working mostly with turf grass,” Hopkins said. “I had worked loosely with BYU grounds on various project before then, but the real involvement came after his call.”

Beth Black is working on an honor's thesis with the research she is doing in Hopkins' lab.

Since then, Hopkins’ research has identified the proper amounts of nutrients to feed the grass to keep it healthy, as well as the right amount of water to keep it soft but not oversaturated. Some of his recent research focuses on the development of enhanced-efficiency fertilizers that results in deeper and thicker roots that provide a safer, greener and better playing surface with half the amount of fertilizer.

Inside his blindingly-bright lab in the Life Sciences Building, Hopkins tests grass care methods on tiny patches of turf nourished by nutrient-filled water buckets. Hydroponics, as it’s called, allows him and his student researchers to test different nutrients on dozens of grass patches to produce optimal results. The best methods eventually make their way into academic journals (like a study this week in the Journal of Plant Nutrition) and, ultimately, to BYU’s football field.

“BYU has, in my opinion, one of the top fields in the world,” said Hopkins, who regularly gathers data on all aspects of BYU’s playing surface to ensure it meets high standards. “And that pays dividends for our athletes in terms of safety and performance. For example, it performed to perfection in our first (2014) game against Houston.”

How perfectly? In his Houston post-game turf examination (he walks the field after most games), Hopkins couldn’t find a single divot: “I’ve never seen a Kentucky bluegrass with zero divots after a game!” he said.

Here are a few other times BYU’s field ‘performed to perfection.'

When Taysom Hill ran 68 yards for a TD as a freshman vs. Hawaii, introducing himself to fans:(Click on images to view full plays)

When Hill jumped 10 yards through the air, with the help of two Boise State defenders last year:

When he dragged Virginia’s All-American safety into the endzone this year vs. Virginia:

And, pretty much the entire 2013 Texas game

Of course, Hill and running mate Jamaal Williams also played exceptionally well this year on Texas’ artificial turf field. Which brings up the question: Which is better? Turf or real grass? In Hopkins’ eyes there’s no question: the real stuff is the best.

“Artificial turf is much much better today than it was when I was playing football, which was essentially carpet on top of concrete,” Hopkins said. “It’s easier to use artificial turf, but real grass is a safer surface.”

And cooler. According to measurements, artificial turf can be as hot as 196 degrees at the surface level. The hottest natural grass will ever reach is 120 degrees.


Originally published in BYU News