As football leagues around the nation begin to place greater emphasis on player safety, New Jersey is preparing to take an unprecedented step for not just high school football, but the sport as a whole.
A piece of New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association legislation that would greatly limit full-contact hours during practice has been informally approved by the executive committee, according to Practice Like Pros president Terry O’Neil.
The bill, which O’Neil is hopeful will pass in February, would decrease the time of full-contact drills allowed in both the preseason and regular season.
In the preseason, there is currently no limit on the number of full-contact hours players can take on during practice. Under these guidelines, the allowed time would be cut to six total hours.
During the season, full-contact allowances would decrease from 90 minutes per week to 30.
This would be the most restrictive mandate on contact restriction ever passed at any level of football.
Despite the drastic limitations, the NJSIAA and New Jersey Football Coaches’ Association don’t think it will be a comprehensive change to the way practices are run at most schools, said John Jacob, an NJSIAA executive committee member and the offensive coordinator at Wayne Hills High School.
“We felt there were a lot of misconceptions about the way football coaches are practicing in more recent times. We just wanted to sort of change the narrative, with regards to the amount of time that full-contact is taking place at a practice,” Jacob said.
“Full contact, taking players to the ground — I would be surprised if there’s a team in New Jersey high school football that goes over 30 minutes a week.”
John Fiore, the president of the NJFCA, said the definition of “full contact” made it reasonable for the schools to accept. The team he coaches, Montclair High School (N.J.), is already near many of the parameters, Fiore said.
Full contact was defined in the measure as “game speed, executing full tackles at a competitive pace, taking players to the ground.”
“When we went and did the data over a year’s time on how much full contact we were doing based on Terry’s definition, it wasn’t difficult to get them to the 30 minutes a week during the season and six hours during the preseason,” Fiore said.
Practice Like Pros preaches the “thud” technique during practice, in which instead of taking the ball carrier to the ground, the defender will hit him in the chest and wrap him up at the point of contact.
Fiore said Montclair, which has won four of the last seven championships, already does “thud” drills in practice and works on tackling techniques with non-human objects such as sleds and dummies.
Montclair is an example that shows evidence of one of the arguments of Practice Like Pros: The rules don’t just improve player safety. They can help the team win and teach players how to control their bodies.
“When you see it at the NFL level, D-1 level, it’s kind of an art form, the way these guys are going full speed, inches from each other, and at the last season, they moderate their speed,” O’Neil said.
Even at higher levels, Practice Like Pros presents evidence on how these training programs are accepted. The organization travels to various states to give presentations filled with video clinics from teams such as the Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars and Rutgers that show different ways to develop tackling techniques without relying on full-contact drills.
“This is the revelation moment for most high school coaches to realize how much real work they can get done without tackling player-on-player,” O’Neil said.
While these rule changes are intended to limit injuries that come from repetitive hits, part of this legislation is intended to improve the perception of football.
“We wanted to take the opportunity for us to get out in front of legislation and be part of enacting legislation, that, to be honest with you, just validates best practices that all of us have been engaging in for years,” Jacob said.
Some schools in the state are struggling to field freshman and junior varsity teams, and Fiore said there has also been a downtick in youth football participation rates.
“Moms aren’t letting their kids play and we’re starting to see the declined numbers in the early ages,” Fiore said. “We as coaches feel it’s our duty at the state level to let people know that it’s so much safer than it used to be, and if this is one of the ways to do it.”