Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Confident THUD Isn't At The Crux Of Tackling Woes
To say the NCAA sanctions against Penn State have been talked about would be an understatement. Fines, scholarship reductions, and bowl bans, they've been explained and detailed ad nauseum to fans, coaches, and players alike.
What gets less attention is how those big picture sanctions can change the little everyday things around the program. One of the biggest changes Penn State's coaching staff has made in the wake of the scholarship restrictions is the implementation of "Thud tackling" during practice.
The major advantage to thud tackling, which calls for defensive players to simply wrap-up an offensive player and not tackle him to the ground, is that it avoids possible injuries from full contact practices. With limited depth at every position health is the most important asset on the team. A few practice bumps and bruises can lead to practice injuries which means fewer and fewer players that are healthy on Saturday.
So for Penn State it's a necessary evil. But the effects are noticeable.
Missed tackles aren't a stat that makes the official box score, but over the past three games Penn State has somewhat uncharacteristically struggled to tackle players. Some missed tackles have led to short gains, others have led to touchdowns.
Some might say you have to practice how you want to perform. Penn State coaches and players? It depends on whom you ask.
"Everybody wants to say that because we aren't tackling in practice that maybe we aren't going to tackle as well in games," Defensive coordinator John Butler said after the game. "And I don't know. I watched a lot of games today with the late start today and you see a lot of missed tackles across the board."
Is it fair to say thud tackling might contribute to missed tackles?
"I think it's fair, that just a decision that we had to make because when you only have 62 scholarship players you've gotta do your best to get what you have on the field. You don't want to take it to 57 because a few guys got hurt in practice and maybe two of those five guys are your best players. We do drill it and I just think we've got to keep drilling it, part of it's just leverage and part of it is just their athletes.
"We work on tackling every day. We work on the leverage of it, and inside leverage player and an outside leverage player and the spacing of it. The only thing we just don't do is to take them to the ground. So I think it's a fair concern but we're drilling it all the time and maybe we just have to take it at a faster speed."
The results from using thud, beyond the health benefits, are mixed. In 2001 Oklahoma State used the thud technique in practice en route to a one-loss season. Even then defensive coordinator Bill Young admitted his team could be a little rusty to start out.
"We'll probably get into the game and wish we had tackled some more," said Young, "but we bit the bullet and decided it'd be worth it to keep the players healthy."
On the other side of the coin Clemson coach Dabo Swinney changed back to full contact practice in 2012 after his team struggled to tackle. Much like O'Brien, Swinney was dealing with the transition from a senior led team to one with more inexperience.
"I would say I probably made a mistake," Swinney said at the time. "Ninety-nine percent of college teams and 100 percent of NFL teams don't go live during the season. You are full-speed, but you thud people up and stay on your feet. Last year, we had a bunch of veteran guys that knew how to play the game up front on both sides. This year, I felt like the only way we were going to get better was to simulate the game speed in practice and to just go live and tackle to the ground and try to fix some of our problems."
As for the actual players, do they feel thud tackling is a negative at all?
"No" Linebacker Nyeem Wartman said.
"We all have played a lot of football," Safety Malcolm Willis said. "We all know how to tackle."