Less 'thud,' more old-fashioned live tackling for Clemson's young defense

Dabo Swinney says Tigers taking the risk, 'biting the bullet' to improve tackling skills

Clemson linebacker Jonathan Willard tackles Boston College Eagles running back Andre Williams in the second quarter.

Photo by Nathan Gray

Clemson linebacker Jonathan Willard tackles Boston College Eagles running back Andre Williams in the second quarter.

Why can't Johnny tackle?

The reason, Dabo Swinney believes, is pretty simple: for many players, the only tackling they do is on game day.

At Clemson, for the last couple of weeks at least, 'thud' is out, as the Tigers have incorporated some live tackling drills into their Tuesday and Wednesday practices.

Better tackling, Swinney believes, can cure a lot of defensive ills.

The problem is one that present-day coaches are still struggling to get a handle on.

During the ACC coaches' teleconference on Wednesday, Swinney suggested that what seems to be an epidemic of poor tackling has its roots in youth football, in particular, and the changing youth sports landscape, in general.

"I think the game has changed, especially with the younger kids," Swinney said. "I've got three sons, eighth grade, seventh grade and third grade, and they all play ball...but when I was growing up, you didn't have all these flag leagues and all that kind of stuff. I mean, you played and you tackled every day.

"That's just what you did. Even in high school, we tackled every day. Even in college. When I was playing in college, our quarterback was live every day. We were live all the time."

Those were the days of larger scholarship numbers, bigger squads and more depth. The trend today is to limit contact during practice periods, thus protecting the health of the team. Tackling skill has subsequently suffered.

"You're seeing the same thing in the NFL," Swinney said. "I think they're only in pads maybe once a week, and so a residual effect of that, or a trickle down effect of less live practicing, is the tackling.

"It's the same thing in spring ball; when I was going through college, every spring practice was live, every day. You had to come out and you played until the guy was on the ground."

He said the game, its rules, and society have changed.

"It's just different now," Swinney said. "Now you have a certain amount of days in shorts...You can only have three scrimmages. You just get less work at playing the game full speed. And it's the same thing in your fall camp.

"Again, I'll use myself as an example. We had two weeks of two a days every day. I'm not an advocate for all of that. I'm just saying that now the first five days are one practice and three of them are in shorts and you can't go live and then you can't have back to back two a days...

"And then just the way the youth of America is today...the high school coaches have had to adapt and change because there's so much competition out there for their players. You know, lacrosse, soccer - you have all these things that are pulling players, and so I think coaches have evolved, and they've had to change the game a little bit."

Swinney said efforts to make the game safer have had a predictable side effect.

"They've tried to make the game safer...but what happens is when you don't get to play this game live and full speed often, and then all of a sudden you show up on game day, it's just hard to simulate, so it takes a little bit longer, I think, for people to really improve," he said. "I think it takes a little bit longer for guys to really get in the groove. And I think you'll see the tackling improve as the season goes on."

Because of all those considerations, plus the overall youth of Clemson's defense, Swinney said the Tigers have begun "practicing live" during the week.

"All of that, I guess, is a roundabout way of answering your question on maybe why tackling is not as good," he said. "Very few schools practice live during the week, (but) now, we've changed that. We have a very young defense, and in fact, we started last week, just Tuesday and Wednesdays, we are going live.

"I've never done that. We've always pretty much been a thud team - full speed, form them up, but we try to stay on our feet. And most people, that's what they do. But we're so young in so many areas, we've just kind of bit the bullet."

He said the results so far have been promising, but not without risk.

“If I had been a little smarter, we would have done it earlier,” Swinney said. “But better late than never. And we’ve been lucky, and nobody has gotten hurt. If you go out there and get a great player hurt, you beat yourself up on that. But I felt like we needed to take that risk and let them see that game-speed on the practice field."

He's hoping to see not only improved tackling, but improved confidence.

"I thought we had a confidence problem as far as finishing some plays," Swinney said. "I felt that with last week and with the open date coming up, we would hold our breath and go through it. We have improved, and I definitely think it helped us last week. I don’t think there is any question about it – I think we tackled better.”

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