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HS Coaches Hope Tackling Tweaks Reduce Head Injuries

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Copyright 2018 Sun Journal Oct 4, 2018

Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine)

 

Lewiston coach Bruce Nicholas once attended a coaching clinic hosted by then-University of Maine coach Jack Cosgrove for, among other reasons, his pearls of wisdom on tackling.

Nicholas asked the coach how the Black Bears taught and practiced tackling, almost expecting him to reveal a 10-point plan on how to make your players better tacklers.

Cosgrove's answer caught Nicholas and many of the coaches by surprise. The Black Bears did very little tackling in practice because they were more concerned about keeping players healthy.

"He said, 'Every one we lose in practice is ours," Nicholas recalled. "He was honest with us. Safety is huge."

With safety concerns, particularly those involving head trauma, becoming more and more prominent in recent years, coaches are finding new ways to teach their players tackling.

Live tackling in practice is becoming less and less common. The legendary "Oklahoma" drill has gone the way of the neck roll. And it's not just player-on-player contact that is being discouraged in the name of safety. Tackling dummies are getting a lot less work than they did even a decade ago.

Nicholas, who has coached for over 20 years, has seen his players' opportunities to work on tackling decline over those two decades.

"We did more live tackling. We did live tackling (tackling through to the ground) when we went team offense, quite a bit. We don't do any live tackling during team offense now," Nicholas said. "It has been a huge change in that regard."

While live tackling was a regular part of preseason double sessions (at least during the Maine Principals' Association's designated dates for players in pads), Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren doesn't recall his team doing any live tackling in practice during the regular season. Players still pursue and play to the (quick) whistle, but coaches are more concerned with reinforcing proper technique and safety precautions than toughening their players up.

"The big thing is making sure of the safety pieces - you're not leading with your head, your eyes are up, you're hitting with your shoulder," Soehren said. "Good form tackling is keeping your feet and not diving at people."

Good tackling and safety aren't mutually exclusive. Someone who form tackles correctly is more likely to get a ball-carrier to the ground and more likely to do it safely.

Earlier this season, Lewiston junior linebacker Dominick Colon sought to intimidate opposing ball carriers with bone-jarring hits. Coaches worried that he was an injury waiting to happen if he maintained that playing style and corrected his technique.

"Before, it was more about how hard I could hit them," said Colon, who went into last week as the leading tackler in Class A North. "Now, it's more how effectively can I get them to the ground."

"He was hurting himself sometimes as much anyone else because the technique wasn't there," Nicholas said. "He was hitting them with the chest or hitting with the head blowing people up. We've worked on that and it's made him a better player, a better tackler, a better finisher on his tackles, and it's going to keep him, hopefully, safer, too."

"It's more about focus and playing the game slower," Colon said.

That doesn't mean Colon isn't playing "downhill," as it's known in football jargon. Much of good tackling is developing good instincts and learning to trust those instincts through preparation and repetition.

"What is football about? Effort and leverage," Soehren said. "Tackling is about finding those angles and finding ways to get low to leverage people around."

Weighing in at a solid 230 pounds, Colon, who also plays fullback, doesn't usually have to worry about doing that against ballcarriers who are bigger than him. Cole Dunham, Oxford Hills' junior linebacker, weighs 60 pounds less and is second in the conference in tackling.

Correct tackling form makes up for lack of size, and it's not difficult for Dunham to realize when he isn't using correct form.

"You notice it when you're missing tackles because when you're not in the right spot, you'll end up doing an arm tackle versus a full wrap-up," Dunham said.

Also a member of Oxford Hills' wrestling team, Dunham said good tackling isn't that far removed from doing a double leg takedown on the mat.

Dunham and Soehren agreed having that background helps with his tackling. But players also have to have the right mentality and instincts.

"You can't just be a robot and keep doing the same thing. At some point, you have to just play football," Dunham said.

The Vikings pride themselves on playing tough, physical football, but instilling that mentality is more difficult with contact being de-emphasized in practice for safety reasons.

"It's not like we do a live tackling drill and say, 'Go smash into that kid and see what it's like,'" Soehren said. "I think it's a cultural piece, where kids learn young to play fairly fast to the ball."

Tacklers can still play fast and hard and do it safely. Dunham remembers facing one running back this year who outweighed him by at least 50 pounds and how the Vikings' defense was able to physically and mentally wear him down without dropping an anvil on him.

"He was a pretty big guy, but once we started hitting him at the legs he didn't want the ball anymore," Dunham said. "We're a physical team. We like hitting hard. If you can wear a guy down where he doesn't want to come out and try to block you or run the the ball at you anymore, it gets in their head and they're not going to do it well."

Old-timers complaining about how players these days tackle, or can't tackle, is a constant in football. Players taking pride in their tackling is a constant, too.

"I think what differentiates a good team from a bad team is tackling," Colon said. "A lot of missed tackles equal bad defense. And if you're effective at it, you can make the big plays."

"I think we still tackle pretty well," Nicholas said. "I guess you could watch a game from the stands and say, 'They don't tackle like we used to.' But you take (Lewiston safety) Tanner Cortes and Dominick Colon and people like that, and they tackle just as well as anyone did back in the day. They're taught differently. We've learned a lot about concussions, and I don't want guys sitting over there (on the sidelines). I want them playing out there (on the field)."

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