PULLMAN – If there was one thing everyone agreed on following Washington State’s shocking 65-17 season-opening loss at Oklahoma State it was that the Cougars’ tackling was … well, let them describe it.
“We were horrible, we were absolutely terrible,” said coach Paul Wulff.
“It was the worst part of our defense. We pride ourselves on our tackling ability,” said senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman, “and we tackled poorly, very poorly.”
“We didn’t tackle,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said.
So just how do you tackle someone? And, no, it’s not as easy as just knocking them to the ground, as we’ll see later. There are fundamentals. And we asked WSU linebackers coach Travis Niekamp what they are.
“You lead with the stub, drive and tackle with that stub,” Niekamp said. “Have good pad leverage, a good base, and then lead with the stub. We talk about leading with the stub and we talk about tackling as a one-legged takedown.”
OK, in English please.
Niekamp laughed and explained the stub is the chest, the area between the belly button and the shoulders. And the one-legged takedown is akin to dunking a basketball. You jump higher, or bring more power, if you explode off one leg.
“If you’re leading with the chest, leading with your stub, you’re getting the strength of your body on to them,” Niekamp said. “It goes back to the old fundamental football position.”
That’s fine, but you also have to be in the right spot to do all that.
“Basically, you’ve got to get in position,” said linebacker Myron Beck, a senior who had four tackles last Saturday and has 79 in his WSU career. “You’ve got to run to the near hip and don’t break your feet, don’t stop, don’t round off your angle. Your pursuit angle is like the most important thing.”
And if you miss?
“Grab them and hold on,” Beck said. “Anyway you can. You’ve got to grab cloth. Hold on, stay clamped.”
So the idea is to approach the ballcarrier in balance and lead with your chest.
The tackler can’t lead with his head because it unsafe, but also because if the head leads, the body follows and balance is lost.
The tackler also can’t just try to grab with his hands for the same reason, the body follows and balance is lost.
Instead the tackler should use his core to attack the ball, then wrap up, or squeeze with the elbows and arms. With that accomplished, it’s easy to lift off the back leg and drive the ballcarrier to the turf.
And that’s the point. The object of any defensive play is to get the ballcarrier to the ground. That’s when the play stops.
If you accomplish that behind the line of scrimmage, great. Even with it, good. Downfield, bad. If it never happens, crud.
Such was the case with Oklahoma State running back Kendall Hunter on Saturday night. He gashed the Cougars for 257 yards rushing, around 130 of them coming after a missed tackle according to Niekamp. He also scored four times, part of eight OSU offensive plays that ended without a tackle.
“He had great balance,” Beck said of Hunter. “We would hit him and just bounce off. Everybody was going for the big hit instead of staying clamped and getting him down.
“It was frustrating because we were there. We turned 2-yard gains into 45-yard gains or 20-yard gains, just by not staying clamped. It was frustrating to see how many yards we could have prevented if we had just gotten him down.”
For the game, WSU missed 21 tackles and had a tackling rate of 75 percent. The Cougars’ goal in each game is 90 percent.
How do you reach that goal? WSU teaches tackling in a progression, starting with the end, clamping down on the ballcarrier. Then they work on using the stub and the back-leg takeoff.
“Then we graduate to doing it on moving targets,” Niekamp said. “And not always live targets.”
And that’s the rub. Tacklers need to practice in live settings.
“But the problem is there’s that fine line,” Niekamp said. “What’s too much, what’s not enough. As coaches, especially in-season, you get spooked. You don’t want guys to get hurt. You want to get guys to the game.”
So you work on it in the spring, in fall camp and then rely on the fundamentals to carry you though. Fundamentals you reinforce through practice time and film study. That’s where, Beck said, the Cougars noticed a key problem with their play Saturday.
“We’ve seen it in film,” Beck said. “When we attack the line of scrimmage and we attack the ballcarrier, there weren’t long runs. Attacking in the line of scrimmage is where it’s going to be at.”
“Tackling is a big part of defense,” Niekamp added. “If you don’t tackle well, it’s hard to win.”