Imagine a football coach sitting in a recruit’s living room and telling the prospective player that he will go his entire four-year career without tackling a teammate or being tackled by a teammate. Yet, as a defensive player, he will work on tackling more than anything else.
That is pretty much how it has played out at Dartmouth since 2010. Coach Buddy Teevens and his staff teach plenty of tackling, but with the use of dummies, pads and the like. Not other players.
Lest you think the Big Green are big wimps, think again. Guess which team last season allowed the fewest yards per rush attempt among 125 FCS programs and recovered the most fumbles, the byproduct of solid hitting, in the Ivy League while sharing the league title with Harvard and Penn?
The larger picture, of course, is the concern for player safety. During their annual meeting recently the Ivy League’s coaches agreed to eliminate full-contact during regular-season practices. The move awaits confirmation this spring from the league’s athletic directors and presidents and would be implemented for the 2016 season. This comes five years after the league reduced the number full-contact practices teams can conduct.
Last season there was not a single man game lost to the Dartmouth’s starting defense and only two players on the depth chart missed any time.
“The concussive head injury issue kind of reared up about five years ago and it kind of struck me that we have a lot of contact, and do we have to have as much?” said Teevens, who played at Dartmouth and is in his second stint as coach. “Stuff happens on occasion, but it is more soft tissue such as hamstring and ankle sprains, but the impact injuries have dropped.”
With mobile dummies developed by the school’s engineering department and stationary dummies, the idea is to better teach technique and use more shoulder-type tackling. Furthermore, simply training with dummies cuts back on injuries; players can go all out without fear of hurting oneself or somebody else while sharpening their skills.
“People misconstrue the fact that we do not tackle,” said Teevens. “We tackle a lot, probably more than anybody in the country. We just don’t tackle each other. What I found is that by training guys in a skillset they will use on game day, they are more efficient and more effective with it and are safer. We can get very, very specific and (hit a dummy) low left shoulder or high right shoulder and players can envision the targets in their mind’s eye. The carryover is pretty solid into a game situation.”
Teaching and instruction still take place. It is just done a little differently.
“You still have to teach blocking and tackling,” said Penn coach Ray Prior, who employs Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s shoulder-tackling methods known as Hawk Tackling. “A lot of that stuff is done with simulation with pads and other equipment instead of live body on live body. A lot of tackling has to do a lot more with positioning and approach and the actual contact. Contact is important, but how to get there has a lot to do with it.”
A byproduct besides the decrease in concussions and other impact injuries is that players’ freshness and energy remains at high levels as the season progresses. Harvard coach Tim Murphy knows this all too well. Fifteen years ago he put an end to full-contact practices in the regular season with immediate results.
“We saw an intangible increase in late-season energy and morale and a tangible decrease in practice injuries,” he said.
Since the Crimson have been employing that mode of training for so many years the coaches’ movement does not resonate much with Murphy.
“It's definitely long overdue at all levels,” said Murphy, whose team led the Ivy League in rush defense last season and was fourth in the FCS. “But give the NFL a bit of credit as most teams adopted this model long ago. So for us, it's a little bit anti-climactic because so many coaches like myself long ago adopted what is basically the NFL model.”
In the summer of 2011 the NFL and the players’ union adopted several measures to cut back on injuries, including the elimination of full-contact two-a-days during training camp and reducing the number of padded practices in the regular season to 14.
Yale defensive back Hayden Carlson, the league’s leading tackler last season as a sophomore, is all for anything that can benefit player safety.
“Anything the Ivy League or any conference can do in making player safety paramount is important and needs to be recognized,” he said. “I think overall you see the NFL taking concussions more seriously and even in high school there are more concussion protocols. It is good to see that changes are being made.”
An important thing to keep in mind is that the coaches are not advocating doing away with contact. There would still be plenty of that.
“There are some misconceptions,” said Carlson’s Yale teammate, linebacker Matt Oplinger. “It is not about no contact, it is no tackling. There are still going to be periods where we are going to full speed and hitting. It is just that we are not bringing anybody to the ground. It will be safe tackling.”
For those who wonder how that can be effectively carried out, Teevens said it is simple and the benefits are huge.
“What I tell guys is to put yourself in the position of imminent contact and then allow the ball carrier an exit,” he said. “Peripheral injuries such as shoulders, back, arms and so forth have dropped appreciably. One of the biggest benefits is my front line guys are able to practice more during the course of the year and play more during the course of the year because they are not injured.”
Things change and so does football. However, Teevens is concerned that unless coaches, leagues and conferences adapt, the game may drive itself to oblivion.
“I say this to other coaches quite often, ‘You don’t go to school to coach, you pretty much coach based on what you were coached to do as a player,’” he said. “At some point we need to step back and just say, ‘Maybe there is a better way,’ especially in light of concussive awareness and so forth.
“There is the attrition rate with cities and towns dropping youth football and kids not playing football and instead playing soccer and other sports. If we don’t change the way we coach the game we will not have a game to coach. I really believe that.”
RULE CHANGES TO WATCH
Among the major NCAA rules changes for 2016:
- Replay officials may stop games and assign targeting fouls “where an egregious action occurred and was missed by on-field officials.”
- Electronic devices will be allowed inside press boxes and locker rooms during games, but not on the field or sideline.
- Rules pertaining to low blocks were adjusted to prohibit a player who leaves the tackle box from blocking below the waist toward the initial position of the ball.
- Rules pertaining to a defenseless player will include ball carriers who have clearly given themselves up by sliding feet first.
- The deliberate tripping of a ball carrier with the leg will be a penalty.
- Officials will be instructed to “stringently enforce” the 3-yard limit regarding ineligible receivers downfield.
Above and middle: Tackling dummies in action during Dartmouth practices. (Courtesy Dartmouth Athletics)