One thing every training camp in the NFL has in abundance is drills. Most are repetitive and boring.
Some drills can bring down team morale throughout practice just from anticipation alone, while others create an energy level so infectious that it sets a fire under the organization for the entire day. If a singular moment in practice can shake players out of the monotony of an NFL training camp to this extent, it’s sure to have all the necessary components for a fantastic drill.
So what's exactly required for a good drill? The absolute “musts” of any great training-camp drill should always include the following:
- It must make you better.
- It must be fun.
- It must have an intense competitive element.
- It must induce nervousness to some degree.
- It must incite an enthusiastic audience.
By tapping into my own personal experiences and observations throughout my football career, I’ve composed an exclusive list of the three best drills any NFL training camp has to offer.
The Nutcracker Drill
Not exactly sure what the name of this drill is referring to, but we ran it during training camp under the Art Shell regime. Sure, there’s a lot to criticize about that dilapidated era in Raiders history, but one thing coach Shell got right was this particular event.
For any team looking to improve aggressiveness and increase overall toughness, I fully recommend the Nutcracker drill.
First off, the drill is conducted while the entire team gathers around to watch, which typically indicates a certain level of importance. This also innately encourages a highly competitive atmosphere, one in which the stakes are high for acquiring respect among teammates, coaches and bystanders.
The drill requires the participation of every player from every position, with the exception of the quarterback and kickers, who are excluded because of the intensely violent nature of the drill.
The object is to select two guys of comparable size (one on offense and one on defense), line them up face to face between two long bags spaced out about five-yards apart, and have them start in whatever stance their natural position dictates.
From here, the anticipation is palpable.
Once the whistle blows, each player launches himself into the other with the sole intent of driving the other as far back as he possibly can. There’s no avoiding contact in this drill. The focal point is to emphasize strength, toughness, leverage and tenacity. If a player lacks in any of these categories, it’s sure to be exposed in this exercise.
If a matchup is paired properly, there’s sure to be quite a battle. These are the moments when character and intangibles can be revealed. To be successful in this drill, you absolutely must dig deep.
Making things more interesting, the coaches would keep score between the offense and defense. In the end, the unit with the most wins would be rewarded by being excused from post-practice conditioning.
Needless to say, enthusiasm and intensity are at full throttle for this event.
This certainly ranks as one of the most physically-demanding training-camp activities I’ve ever participated in or bared witness to. This was one drill that definitely got my adrenaline pumping and the nerves rattled.
After completing a successful session, few things in practice are more satisfying.
Here’s another drill generally designed for the whole team, excluding of course the usual suspects mentioned earlier, you know, the guys wearing red jerseys who have personal ball-catchers because they could break a finger catching it themselves.
The drill works by having two groups organize into parallel lines behind a designated coach who has a pile of balls. When both players in the front of each line are ready, the coach tosses a football on the ground about 10 yards, where it can roll, bounce and randomly flip into the air, as footballs tend to do. The objective is for each guy to get to the ball first and recover the simulated fumble by any means necessary.
An addition to the drill that can be particularly fun is to add weather elements. Some teams apply the fumble drill while spraying water on the players as they dive for the ball or by throwing the ball in a nice, cool puddle of mud.
On the surface, this particular drill may seem like one of the safer ones to engage in, but in reality, it’s quite the opposite. Whenever you have bodies flying around colliding in awkward positions with the frequency common to this drill, there’s a high injury risk, particularly to limbs and joints.
One of the best things about this drill is the way it translates into game-time situations. For a lot of guys, particularly for the defensive and offensive line, they can go weeks without ever touching actual footballs. This drill provides those guys with opportunities to familiarize themselves with ball-handling and learn the best ways to recover fumbles.
A critical teaching point for this drill is to understand the best way to fall on footballs. Ideally you want to avoid having your body weight land on the ball, because it tends to force the ball out of your grasp like squeezing a bar of soap in the shower. To prevent this, coaches advise guys to try to fall sideways while the body curls around the ball into a fetal position.
Most coaches will typically discourage non-skill-position players from trying to pick the ball up and run. These folly-filled attempts can be seen on a weekly basis and rarely end the way those players hope for.
Last but not least, this drill provides the opportunity for guys to compete against each other in full-speed events in which anything can happen, making it one of the most enjoyable drills to watch.
It’s usually accompanied by lots of laughs and big cheers from onlookers.
The legendary Oklahoma drill is very similar to the Nutcracker in concept but with an added component of having a running back lined up behind a blocker as he tries to squeeze through a narrow space on either side of the two bags. While this is going on, the defensive player must shed the blocker and make the tackle without giving up too much ground.
During this exercise, the defensive guy has a few strategic options available to him. He can choose to shed the block quickly with a swim move or side step, but he must have the quickness and timing to position back to the ball-carrier without declaring a side early and creating a lane for the running back. For this reason, most coaches discourage all attempts to slip past blockers too early and would prefer you take them head-on with the ability to shed as the running back declares a side first.
Unfortunately, this is where coaches can often limit the playmaking potential of guys who may possess unique abilities or instincts. But from a standpoint of fundamentals, it’s always a good idea to have your players work on essential concepts that eventually factor in game-time situations.
This drill has to be the No. 1 crowd-pleaser at any training-camp practice. It also happens to be the loudest of all training-camp drills regarding the thunderous clashes of hardened plastic at intense speeds and backed with incredible force.
This drill is guaranteed to be loaded with “wow” moments consisting of big hits, impressive power and athletic feats that help make football the most popular sport in the country.
Which drill would you be most concerned having your star player involved in?
With opportunities to work on tackling limited in today’s game, every rep a player gets at this drill is crucial, especially for the younger guys. It also exposes who can and can’t be anchors in the running game. This can be valuable information when narrowing down the final roster.
Furthermore, this may be the most widely-used and most recognizable football drill out there. Nearly everyone who has ever played the game has seen this drill in one form or another. The reason for its universal appeal is clear—it incorporates and highlights nearly every fundamental aspect of playing in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
What few may realize about all of these drills is how nervous it makes nearly everyone who participates in them. Players know that everyone is watching. They also know that it will require their complete effort and intensity just to avoid embarrassment. Sure, the nerves tend to settle after you get a rep or two, but every time your name is called to action in front of the entire team, the body's natural reaction is almost exactly like preparing for a street fight with another person.
Needless to say, of all the exercises mentioned here, the Oklahoma is my all-time favorite.
This, more than any other drill in football, adds heart, toughness and attitude to a football team—but each is both valuable and enjoyable in its own right.
Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Before B/R, Ryan played defensive end at the University of California, where he still holds the single-season sack record. Afterwards, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent time with the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.