Not long before former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died in January 2012, Center Grove coach Eric Moore had a conversation with him regarding the increasing concern about concussions in the sport.
Moore asked Paterno what he thought was going to happen to the game.
“You can fix it really easy,” Moore said Paterno told him. “Just take the facemasks off.”
While that seems unlikely, the point was taken: to increase safety in the game, take the head out of tackling.
“In the barbaric days, it was about destroying people,” said Moore, 54, in his 17th season at Center Grove. “But you lose some to win some. If you just get the guy to the ground, who cares? How many guys are wounded has nothing to do with the score.”
So Moore set about finding a solution. He believes he’s found it by implementing shoulder-first, rugby-style tackling first popularized for football through a viral video produced last summer. The video features Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll teaching a style of tackling that emphasizes leg tackling and leading with the shoulder.
Center Grove isn’t the only local program that has taken to the “Hawk Tackle” style. Carmel was one of the first to install the system and coaches at Beech Grove, Brebeuf Jesuit, Martinsville, New Palestine, Noblesville, Plainfield, Westfield and Zionsville have implemented at least some aspects of rugby-style tackling.
“We have implemented this style throughout our program from high school down through the junior league,” Martinsville coach Brad Rose said. “I believe it has been an effective tool for us in minimizing the contact with the head, thus limiting concussions.”
The game must evolve to survive, Moore said. The philosophy of taking the head out of tackling is something he can take to his football parents and youth program to show the program is taking safety seriously.
“We’re showing that there is another version of what we can do,” he said. “Now, if we get to the season and can’t tackle anybody I’m not going to be happy.”
How it works
Within 12 hours of watching Carroll’s video last July, Carmel coach John Hebert – then the defensive coordinator – overhauled the Greyhounds’ tackling philosophy.
“I was skeptical,” said Carmel senior cornerback Alex Akins. “It’s sort of unconventional at first. But once we started going over it in practice, I liked it more and more. There are different variations of the tackle depending on the situation.”
Carroll, who first began teaching this style of tackling at USC, calls the Seahawks a “shoulder-leverage tackling team.” In a nutshell, the tackler focuses on the closest hip of the ball carrier and drives his shoulder into the thigh of the offensive player. There are six variations of the tackle taught in the video. His teaching points include: eyes through the thighs, wrap and squeeze and “drive for five (yards)” when necessary.
The timing couldn’t have been better. When the video came out, the Seahawks were coming off a dominating Super Bowl win over Denver and had established a reputation as one of the most physical and imposing defenses in the NFL.
“They play fast and they play with confidence,” Hebert said. “What he’s done is revolutionary. We’ve been doing it every day for 13 months now with our high school team and now we have our older kids teaching our younger kids how to do it at the youth level.”
Other local coaches are skeptical. Scott Marsh, in his seventh year at Perry Meridian, said he’s discussed the rugby-style tackling numerous times with his staff.
“Obviously there’s a tremendous amount of merit to it,” Marsh said. “However, for the most part, the kids we’re coaching at our level (in high school) are at a very low level developmentally. We feel that it’s best if we continue to teach tackling with the chest and keeping the head back and out of the tackle. The shoulder is fine, but for the lower-developmental kids, any tackle that would increase the chance of lowering the head at all was something we wanted to stay away from.”
Marsh isn’t alone. Westfield coach Jake Gilbert said his program uses shoulder tacking in a select situation when a defender is pursuing a ball carrier from behind and inside and needs to roll him down. He doesn’t teach it to younger players out of concern that it may cause less experienced players to drop their head on a tackle.
“I believe the rugby tackle can be very effective as an advanced technique,” Gilbert said.
Center Grove defensive coordinator Chad Daniels estimates that he’s watched Carroll’s video “roughly 1,000 times.” He said he became fully convinced it was the right move when Ohio State adopted the technique.
Daniels said rugby-style protects his team’s bigger hitters.
“We’re trying to teach them a better, more effective way to tackle,” he said. “We’re trying to take care of our strikers. The fewer (dangerous) hits you have, the better. We’re not saying what we’ve been doing is wrong, we just want to give them some options that might be safer.”
“Not an exact science”
The Indiana High School Athletic Association backs USA Football’s “Heads Up” program and requires concussion training for its coaches.
But all of the education and training doesn’t change the fact that football is a physical sport. A study at Purdue University showed a high school football player may take anywhere from 200 to 1,800 hits to the head over the course of a season.
New Palestine coach Kyle Ralph said his team didn’t have any concussions in a game last season. While he can’t attribute that entirely to the new style of tackling, he said it’s a good sign.
“Tackling is not an exact science,” Daniels said. “Football can be violent and nasty and there’s a million different things that can happen. But if we can teach them how to get their head out of the tackle, I think we’re doing something right.”
Carmel’s Akins, one of the state’s best defensive backs, has taken rather quickly to the rugby-style tackle.
“It took a little time because it’s a new concept and new style, but the more you do it the more natural it becomes,” he said. “I’d say I’m a better tackler now than I was before.”
As Moore looks out over the field a week before the season opener, he envisions rugby-style tackling as the future of the sport.
“You have to look at it a different way now,” he said. “Let’s just get the guy down and get on to the next play. I’m not trying to change football here. We still have to have tough base. But if we have to play 14 games to win a state championship, we have to have enough guys left to dance when we get there.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.