Has College Football Gone Soft? The Decline of Tackling in Fall Camps
Did you know that USC didn’t participate in any form of live tackling in its fall camp before the 2012 season?
This is the same team that finished last year ranked No. 61 nationally in total defense, allowing 394 yards per game.
Though Lane Kiffin’s decision to eliminate tackling had more to do with the Trojans' reduction in scholarships making potential injuries even more devastating, it provides fodder for an intriguing argument.
Is contact—already limited by the NCAA in spring ball—on its way out in fall camps? And if so, what will it mean for college football?
There are two conflicting approaches to determining how much contact is appropriate during practice. The first has to do with damage control, and the second has to do with being prepared for game day.
The main reason for limiting contact is to prevent injuries, especially since the fall practices are being held just weeks before the season.
An injury in fall camp could cost a key athlete the season, while the same injury in the spring could heal by the first game.
This is precisely what made USC’s Kiffin decide to cut all tackling from fall practice in 2010.
The Trojans lost starting defensive end Nick Perry on one of the first plays from scrimmage that August, leading to Kiffin making the following statement as per ESPN.com.
We can’t afford to do it. We won’t do any live tackling in live drills [aside from] the second and third preseason game. We won’t do it in practice ever again until about four years from now.
It’s an argument that makes perfect sense. Why risk key players to costly injuries just days before the season begins?
Poor In-Season Performance
The flip side of the argument is that the lack of contact leads to missed tackles on game day.
According to an article posted in November 2012 in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, a “realistic goal in the estimation of college coaches” for missed tackles is no more than seven or eight a game.
The same article stated that through eight games last season Texas averaged 11.4 missed tackles per game, a number that included 16 in the 63-21 loss to Oklahoma.
This performance—or lack thereof—was totally eclipsed by Mississippi State, which reportedly missed 30 tackles in its 38-13 loss to Texas A&M last season.
Missed tackles are also an issue in the NFL—which outlawed live contact during the offseason in 2012.
According to the Star-Telegram, the NFL does not track missed tackles as an official statistic. However, the Elias Sports Bureau counted 299 pass plays that covered at least 40 yards last season, an increase of roughly 25 percent from 2007.
Tracing this back to non-contact practices is easy and precisely what led Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr to make the following statement in the Star Telegram article.
We don’t practice nearly as much as we used to…[TACKLING'S] kind of a lost art, I guess. It’s something you’ve got to work on your own…Everyone’s bigger, stronger and faster. It’s that much harder to make the tackles on these guys.
Even though Carr’s comments refer to the advances in offense making tackling in the open field more difficult, it’s tough to deny that less practice leads to less efficient tackling.
The question is clear-cut. Is it more important to protect key players, or is risking injury just the price of being battle-ready on game day?
Though current coaches and administrators are forced to face this issue, it may ultimately be a question they don't have to answer.
That is, if college football follows the NFL by first limiting contact in fall practice and then banning it completely.
The NCAA guidelines already regulate the amount of tackling that can take place in spring ball, currently limiting contact to 12 of the 15 allowed practices and tackling in only eight.
The bylaws do not limit the amount of contact in fall camp, with the exception of requiring a “five-day acclimatization period” which doesn’t allow full pads until the fifth day of the preseason.
Beyond the NCAA, it’s possible that individual teams and conferences might change their guidelines regarding contact.
To illustrate, as per an article posted on the Orange Country Register in June of this year, the Pac-12 has “announced its intention to limit the amount of hitting done by football players during-in season practices.”
What a potential move to ban contact in fall practice would do to performance—especially for teams who schedule formidable non-conference opponents early in the season—is unknown.
While it’s easy to predict that injuries would decrease while missed tackles increase, what’s less discussed is how player safety might be jeopardized by a reduction in contact.
How does an athlete—especially a young guy—learn to safely handle full-contact situations if he no longer practices them?
Can a football player learn how to properly protect himself in a violent game by just talking about what might happen?
Taking an entirely different approach to the subject, here’s what—per ESPN.com in 2010— USC’s defensive line coach Ed Orgeron had to say about the Trojans move to eliminate fall-camp tackling. “You worry about it,” Orgeron admitted of the scaled-back approach, adding that players can get tangled up when they go down, but “guys can get hurt running through bags too.”
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