Blair Academy in New Jersey has long had a policy of no tackling in practice.
With a small roster that’s hovered around 35 players on the varsity and junior varsity combined, the school couldn’t afford to lose players to injury.
That no-tackle philosophy will now be applied to a three-team scrimmage scheduled for Saturday with Kittatinny and Belvidere that is believed to be the first of its kind nationally.
Blair coach Jim Saylor said the scrimmage will be run at full speed in full pads, but the ballcarriers will not be brought to the ground instead being stopped by being wrapped up or using thud. Players will stay on their feet with contact above the waist and a quick whistle ending the play. The contact on the lines will be the same as a live scrimmage.
“Football is a great game, but our kids are more important,” Saylor said. “As a coach, I’ve had comments from other coaches and players about not changing the integrity of the game and keeping it the way it is. We don’t see this as changing the integrity.
“It’s not being soft, it’s being safe.”
Saylor said he expected the other coaches he approached to be reluctant to try this type of scrimmage because state rules allow only two scrimmages against another school before the season opener. But, he said, it required little convincing.
“I was very, very excited for it,” Belvidere coach Josh Constantino said. “We’re still asking our kids to compete at a high level. …
“We’re a very small schools with 28 players from freshmen to seniors. This is a chance to get quality reps without getting any injuries and still competing.”
Kittatinny has 34 players from sophomores to seniors. While the team does the allowable live contact in practice, coach Joe Coltelli said his program often uses thud during drills.
“At first, when Coach Saylor called me, your first mindset is that you’re a little skeptical,” Coltelli said. “You only have two scrimmage and want to see how your players will perform. But we’re trying to keep injuries down with a small squad and then you see the thought process.
“We’re excited to give it a shot. I think this is the direction the sport will go in the future as far as practices go.”
The idea for the no-tackle scrimmage came after a session with “Practice Like Pros,” an advocacy group founded by former NFL executive Terry O’Neil that calls for reduced contact in practice as a means to limit injuries and make football safer. Practice Like Pros says 80% of football injuries occur in the act of tackling or being tackled.
Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens has been among the biggest advocates of no-tackle practices and sent the Blair coaching staff training videos and material. The Ivy League has banned full-contact hitting in practice in the regular season beginning this year.
The Blair coaches also have been studying the rugby-style tackling techniques that have been implemented by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and assistant head coach Rocky Seto, who started using that method when they were at USC.
“Every drill can be done without equipment and the videos are available free online for any coach to use as a resource from high schools to youth,” Saylor said. “If it’s good enough for the NFL and USC and Dartmouth, it’s something that can be done anywhere.”
Saylor said he expects no difference in being able to evaluate players from the no-tackle scrimmage as he would have from a live scrimmage.
“We’re going to get the same results, Saylor said. “I’ve been questioned by own my own staff and players and parents about that. We are going to get exactly what we need to accomplish and doing it a lot safer.”
Blair also has invested in Riddell InSite helmets with sensors to help record the frequency and severity of hits. The helmets don’t prevent concussions, but they do help the coaches know if a player has been hit hard or if a player needs to use better technique when delivering hits.
The data is entered into a computer and can be evaluated immediately by athletic trainers and the coaching staff, athletic director Paul Clavel said.
“We can see what was the impact of that particular hit to the head,” Clavel said. “We can look at the data and see how many times No. 14 has been hit in the head and see what’s going on. … It’s like having another set of eyes on the field.”
Head of School Chris Fortunato said he wants the athletic programs to be competitive but also be safe. The no-tackle scrimmage and the new helmets are among the ways the school has “ratcheted up” that desire within the last year.
“Blair has a wonderful legacy and tradition of athletics and academics,” he said. “We love the game and what they do on the field, but we love the kids more. We want to take care of the students, maintain a competitive program and keep that legacy alive.
“This is not just what’s best for Blair. We want to share this information with public and private schools. We’ll be talking more with our colleagues with athletic directors, coaches and others. Individual schools have to make a decision to take a leap and that’s what we’re hoping to do and encouraging others to do.”