SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 6, 2013

Moving the Chains: Big collisions at practice becoming a thing of the past

Moving the Chains
Matt Williams

---- — There is plenty of hitting in football — thunderous blocks and bone crunching tackles aren’t going anywhere.

More and more, though, high school coaches are saving them for game field.

The growing trend at all levels of football is to invite less contact and fewer collisions in practice. It’s filtered down from the National Football League to the college ranks and high school fields all over the North Shore.

The picture of a player covered in mud after a full-speed tackling drill and panting for water after wind sprints could be classic Americana.

That vision of double and triple sessions that are harder than Marine boot camp is also becoming antiquated.

“There are guys on my staff that played for me in the late 1990s and they say ‘Coach, what happened to you?’ Back then, the old mentality was make practice harder than the game, and maybe that’s not for the best anymore,” said Bishop Fenwick coach Dave Woods, entering his 16th season.

“Let’s beat everybody into the ground and see who survives — that doesn’t work today.”

Injury prevention plays a big role in managing practice drills. The nationwide emphasis on recognizing and preventing concussions isn’t lost on high school coaches, who are looking at losing a potential starter during an big hitting drill at practice as a waste.

“When I was a freshman, Eddie Toner broke his arm in a scrimmage. Our season went from championship to 6-4 real fast,” Swampscott coach Steve Dembowski recalled. “(Former Big Blue coach) Bill Bush always told me that story ... and that lesson stuck in my head.”

Numbers play a role as well. Schools will shrinking enrollments like Swampscott and Fenwick simply don’t have as many players on the practice field as they once did. That makes losing one to a careless injury that much more impactful.

Even a large school like Masconomet, however, is emphasizing technique over brute force.

“We haven’t tackled full speed in practice for years,” said Chieftains head coach Jim Pugh as he begins his 25th season. “From the varsity level to youth football, it’s about keeping your head up, making contact with the shoulder and bowling your neck.

Is there any concern over teaching kids how to tackle without actually banging full speed? What about the notion that the best way to learn is by doing?

“Years ago I bought a dummy that goes on a long pole and it simulates open field tackling. We tackle it and use it for cut blocking. There’s a lot you can get you of equipment and pads,” said North Shore Tech/Essex Aggie coach Paul Worth, a 17-year fixture on the Bulldogs’ sideline.

“We don’t do the crazy Oklahoma drills in the preseason anymore and the more I think about it, I’m not sure how much we got out of it. Maybe it was unnecessary.”

The Mass. High School Football Coaches Association recently hosted a Practice Like The Pros seminar with leading expert Dr. Robert Cantu. Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens told the group that with more emphasis on technique and less full contact, his team’s missed tackles were reduced by 50 percent, Dembowski said.

“The only time we’ve been live in is scrimmages. You’re practicing full speed with an emphasis on technique,” Dembowski added. “You worry about how we’ll block and tackle live, but if a kid knows his assignments you teach technique. And if he has both, it’s about who will execute the best.”

Coaches have always preached giving up the big hit in order to make the sure tackle. In other words, a defender launching himself to make a highlight hit can easily miss, especially if the ballcarrier is shifty. Breaking down and tackling with the shoulders is a natural extension of that philosophy.

“There are ways to alter drills so you can do tackling without major collisions,” Woods said. “Things like footwork and ripping through blocks are easier to teach when it’s not full speed. It’s a fine line: people love the big hits, but coaches like when it’s fourth down and the other team has to punt. We don’t care how they got there.”

The best way to avoid head injuries is to hit with the shoulders and wrap up with the arms. All the power you need to bring down a ballcarrier comes from the hips and legs.

“My coaches growing up told us to put our nose in his chest. No one thought there would be any problems,” Worth said. “You have to make first contact with your shoulder. You can’t lead with the head — and the biggest thing is to teach that technique.”

Football remains unique among sports in terms of its physical, violent nature. That, and the bond it creates between teammates and rivals alike, hasn’t and will not change. This is simply a matter of managing that contact in a way that keeps players safe and healthy and may actually improve on the on-field product.

“It’s still low man wins, still blocking and tackling. It doesn’t matter if its Knute Rockne, Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick; those are the keys,” said Pugh. “It’s still aggressive, hard-nosed football.”

The fact that kids spend more time lifting weights and doing summer conditioning than ever before is one more piece in this puzzle. Coaches don’t have to pound their teams into the ground during camp to build stamina for the fourth quarter, and that allows them to spend more time on technique.

“That’s the biggest obstacle we face as high school coaches. The pros and college have four weeks or more to prepare for that first game — and we basically have two,” said Dembowski. “Time we can spend on technique is time well spent.”

As if games weren’t special enough, limiting full live hitting to game action has the players chomping at the bit as that first whistle blows on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.

“It keeps the kids hungry,” said Woods. “They can’t wait to get into the game and start hitting.”

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A reminder: As high school football gets underway this weekend, you can get your full gridiron fix from the sports staff at The Salem News. Look for game stories and statistics from the action every Saturday and Monday, previews with video on Thursday and the traditional Moving the Chains, popular staff picks and area stats leaders on Fridays.

In between, we’ll have some plenty to get you through the long week until kickoff comes again, including playoff standings, scoring leaders and a new feature called “Hidden Gems” that will highlight some plays, and players, you might not notice.

During the games, follow us on Twitter for out of town scores, up to the minute stats and insight. The main sports account is @SalemNewsSports and each of our reporters will be providing updates as well: @MattWilliams_SN, @PhilStacey_SN, @MattJenkins_SN, @GiannaAddarioSN, @DanHarrison_SN and @JeanDePlacidoSN.

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A half-dozen area teams open the season this weekend — Danvers, Marblehead, Swampscott, St. John’s Prep, North Shore Tech/Essex Aggie and Beverly — and as it turns out, all six of them won their season opener a year ago. Only Swampscott, Marblehead and Danvers have won two straight openers among those clubs.

Going back five years, the Prep, North Shore Tech/Essex Aggie and Marblehead are all 4-1 in openers; Danvers and Beverly are 3-2 and Swampscott 2-3. Going back 10 years, St. John’s has a sterling 9-1 opening day mark while the Bulldogs, Panthers and Magicians are each 6-4. The Big Blue and Falcons are both 5-5 the last decade in openers.

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Moving the Chains, a column on North Shore high school football, appears every Friday during the fall season in The Salem News. Contact assistant sports editor Matt Williams at 978-338-2669, MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.