||West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said his team will adhere to the NCAA recommended 12 contact practices during preseason camp.
||All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
When Damon Cogdell was a West Virginia linebacker in the mid-1990s he said the Mountaineers did some form of hitting every day during preseason camp.
“It was full-contact and full-go every day,” Cogdell said.
These days, because of the NCAA’s concerted emphasis on player safety (rightfully so) and because players are generally bigger, faster and stronger which leads to much more violent collisions, football teams have dramatically reduced the number of full-contact practices they are having. Here's the catch: teams need to tackle in order to be good at it, but being good at tackling can come at a heavy cost.
“At the highest level they never hit each other,” said West Virginia coach Tony Gibson. “Obviously they’re pros for a reason. In high school, you are going to have to do a little more tackling, but if a kid is playing at West Virginia, Oklahoma or Texas, hopefully he knows how to tackle people and we can just help his technique and not have to concuss each other while we’re trying to do it.”
The crux for any football coach is striking the right balance between the physical work his team needs in order to get ready for the season and not doing too much of it and not having a team when the games begin.
The late Jim Carlen rarely scrimmaged his Mountaineer teams because he didn’t want to lose games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as he used to say. On the other hand, Don Nehlen scrimmaged his teams regularly the way Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler used to work their teams - two completely different approaches from two highly successful coaches.
Current Mountaineer coach Dana Holgorsen leans toward the Carlen method of doing things and he said he is going to adhere to the NCAA suggested number of 12 full-contact practices during preseason camp.
“I went back and looked at how many times we tackled last fall in our camp, and we actually tackled on 13 of the days,” Holgorsen said. “This year we can only tackle on 12 of the days. I don’t think it’s going to affect us at all. We will still have 12 days where we can tee it up and tackle.”
Yet that doesn’t mean the Mountaineers aren’t doing some form of tackle training during each practice. The coaching staff has “tackling circuits” established to ensure their defensive players are getting the tackling work they need. Players just aren't always putting each other on the ground when they are doing it.
“We emphasize it every day,” said cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell. “We track the hip or profile the guy where we want them to get into a position to make tackles. We always say ‘step on his toes and smell his breath before you throw’ and that’s what we’re teaching these guys.”
But simulating a tackle and actually getting someone to the ground are two entirely different things. Tackling is a basic fundamental function of football and what really separates this sport from the others. It’s also probably the least understood aspect of the game to the common fan.
Getting a 235-pound running back who runs a 4.4 to the ground is one of the most difficult (and most physically taxing) things to do in any sport, or, being out on an island with a fast-twitched receiver like Tavon Austin and being asked to tackle him in a wide open area.
That’s why smart offensive coaches like Dana Holgorsen are so successful because they know how to get the Tavon Austins in one-on-one situations out in space, or, better yet, having a Tavon Austin working one part of the field and a Stedman Bailey exploiting another part of it.
Who do you help - the explosive playmaker working the flat or the explosive playmaker working vertically?
Pick your poison.
“Just like anything else, unless you (tackle) live it’s tough to simulate,” said safeties coach Joe DeForest. “Fifteen years ago everything was condensed with tight ends and fullbacks and it was a lot easier to tackle because the game was played in a condensed area. When they throw a hitch pass it’s a one-on-one tackle and it’s hard. I don’t care at what level you are at it’s hard to tackle someone one-on-one. You have to have more than one guy there to bring them down.”
Tom Bradley, former Penn State defensive coordinator now coaching West Virginia’s defensive line, agrees with DeForest that the game of football has changed dramatically. The problem, as Bradley sees it, is that the game to a large degree is being officiated as if it were still being played in a confined area.
“We have the extra guy in the Big 12 and we need the extra guy because it’s sideline-to-sideline now,” said Bradley. “I’m a defensive guy, and I think there are some illegal things going on out on the perimeter every once in a while that they miss and I think that’s part of the game that we have to understand. The game is not played in a phone booth anymore and I think we have to address that as we officiate, too.”
There is no question tackling techniques have improved considerably. You rarely see spearing or a player tackling another player by leading with his head anymore, but are players today actually doing a better job of getting the other guy to the ground?
“Probably not,” admitted Gibson. “But again, you look at the athletes that are doing it. We claim every day that the kids are bigger and stronger … I hear this all the time, ‘When I played we had nobody who looks like this.’ Then the old-school guys will say ‘the kids back in the day were much tougher than they are today, but he runs a 4.3 so what are we going to do?’ That’s our job as coaches. We have to develop a nice plan and when we need to go out there and get after it we have to go out there and get after it.”
When Bradley coached at Penn State, the Nittany Lions got after everyone. Penn State was traditionally considered among the best tackling teams in the country and anyone old enough to remember the 1987 Fiesta Bowl when the Lions completely shut down a Miami offense considered one of the best in NCAA history can attest to that.
You would think Joe Paterno beat on his guys daily in order to get them to become good tacklers. Not so, says Bradley.
“We had good players and good players are usually pretty good tacklers and make coaches look good,” Bradley joked. “But I think there is an art to tackling and it’s something you have to work on. It’s like anything else. If you don’t do it you’re not going to get good at it. We do some type of tackling drill and each position is very unique with its aspects of tackling. For defensive linemen, tackling is very different than for a secondary guy. We try to be more position-specific when we do our tackling drills.”
You talk to any defensive coach and the two times of the year that they worry most about tackling are during season openers and bowl games – both instances when defensive players have not done a lot of live tackling beforehand.
"The only time you can truly get game-type situations are in the game," said Mitchell. "You can simulate it and you can put guys to the ground and you can go through those old, traditional, bull-in-the-ring scenarios where you put two guys in there and they collide but that's one or two reps. That doesn't address the situation."
“There is always the age-old thing, ‘Did we do enough tackling?’” added Bradley. “When you get to bowl season you have to survive the speed of the first quarter because you’ve been going against your scout team.
“I’ve always felt with openers and bowl games … survive the first quarter and get used to the speed,” he added. “There is no way playing Alabama we can duplicate that speed. And we’re a different football team, a different style football team than Alabama will be. That’s hard and we’ve got to get used to it, get caught up to the tempo quickly and survive that first quarter.”
At the same time, the Mountaineers are going to have to figure out a way to get 6-foot-2-inch, 218-pound T.J. Yeldon and 6-foot-3-inch, 241-pound Derrick Henry on the ground when they are running full speed either at them or away from them later this month in the Georgia Dome.
“We better learn how to tackle on the 30th because we know what Alabama is going to bring to the table,” cautioned Gibson. “We know what they’re going to do and we better be able to tackle some big running backs.”