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Southwest Florida coaches share their tackling techniques

Aug. 17, 2013
A coach, player and U.S. Senator talk tackling
A coach, player and U.S. Senator talk tackling: Naples High linebacker Brian Donnelly, coach Bill Kramer and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio discuss tackling technique. Video by David Dorsey.
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Each of the 30 high school football varsity head coaches in The News-Press coverage area was asked the same question in the reporting process for this story: When you get a player in your program, how do you verbally describe to him how to make the safest and most proper form of tackle? Here is how the coaches responded:

Dan Pallante, Barron Collier
I give the kids, every year, whatís called the Winners Manual. It covers everything from our team rules and regulations. The first page of that manual is the legal and proper way to tackle. By legal, I mean following the National Federation of Football guidelines. Itís a neat little quote. It says you cannot use the head in any shape or form as a weapon. When those kids come in Aug. 5, and theyíre given the Winners Manual at 7 in the morning, thatís the first thing we start with. Thatís to protect ourselves.

Phil Dorn, Bishop Verot
First of all, it starts with your eyes. The important thing is that if your eyes are up on a small target point on a runner, then your head is up. We always preach to tackle with your eyes. Focus on it. That leads into everything else. If your eyes arenít on a small target point, then the chances are your head is going to be down. That automatically brings their eyes up. You put your pads into their pads and then lift. Theyíre going to make contact with the near shoulder and the near foot, and their eyes are going to be up looking at the contact point, securing your arms around the runner and wrapping up.

Brian Conn, Ida Baker
The head-to-head tackles lead to injury. We want to make sure they are not trying to hit with the top of the helmet. In terms of injuries, the most important thing is keeping your face mask up. We want them to try to put their face mask into the chest of the player and not using the top of the helmet. Itís one of those things that you have to practice. If you can practice without full pads on and walk through it, thatís something thatís needed. You have to remind them.

Larry Gary, Cape Coral
The biggest thing I tell them is to see the ball and to keep their head up. Run through the guy. You want your body as close to the opponent as possible so you donít lunge. You want to keep your head up. Thatís the biggest thing, is having the kids keep their head up. Once you wrap your hands around the kid, you want your hips rotated and follow through. Thatís why we stress to them to see the ball. If you see the ball, you canít have your head up. Itís going to be shoulder pads. We donít teach to tackle with your head. In the old days, youíd tell the kids to put your head in the numbers. We donít use that here. You put your head in the numbers, you have a problem. The ball is usually in the right or the left arm. You see the ball, your head is going to be up. Thatís why I stress, see the ball.

Mike Marciano, Canterbury
We want to tackle with our chest. Itís a common misconception to tackle with the shoulder pads. If they are bent over, that means their head is down. Our head is up. Our hips are lower than our shoulder. We try to achieve. We try to put our face to the ball. We drive our hips. We wrap. We want to put our face to the ball because then we are not arm tackling. The crown of our heads, the neck, none of that is involved with the tackle. You canít tackle what you canít see. Iím putting my breast plate on the ball. Weíll start with a tackling dummy. We break it down step by step by step. We go over it over and over.

Dale More, Cypress Lake
You get into an athletic stance. Youíre trying to make a V out of your body. Elbows are close to your body. Head is up. Itís head up, hands up, lined up, chest up. Explode up. Youíre coming through the guy and coming up. We teach to put your face mask on the football. The old school way of football is to put your face mask into the chest. We have gotten away from that. We take the arms like the arms of a garbage truck. We ride up from low to high and explode up. Iím going to put my face mask in your right arm pit. Iím bringing my hands up through it. Iím driving my hips into you. To me, thatís the safe way to do it. Weíre keeping the head out of it. Weíre using our hands and our hips and our shoulder pads.

Phil Vogt, Dunbar
The first thing you tell them is to keep your head up. You never drop your head. Thatís the first thing you emphasize. We walk through that. Then you want to get your head to the side of the body and make contact with your shoulder pads. Invariably, that will help avoid spinal injuries, keeping your head up. Thatís the verbal explanation.

Dave Smith, East Lee County
We canít ever use the face mask. The most important thing is to keep the head in an up position. Iíve always been taught your eyes are to the sky. We just have to find a way to take the face mask out of it. I want our guys to wrap up and grab cloth. Your legs are going to be moving. You have to make sure you stick to your guns. All it takes is one bad tackle to get a spinal cord injury. You want to take that out of the equation.

Mark Jackson, Estero
We teach tackling through a progression now. How to wrap their arms, drive through and roll their hips. We walk through with them how to protect themselves. You show them the warning sticker. We tell them to keep their face up and slide the head. You donít want to lead with the helmet. You want to keep your face up. You want to hit them with your shoulder with your arms by your side almost like an upper cut. Then youíre driving into them with your legs. We do step-by-step drills for this.

Tyler Gold, Evangelical Christian School
First of all, we start with a warning on the helmet. We teach the head up. Itís what all of the colleges are doing. You want to be in an athletic position with your back straight and everything being in line. Your always need to be able to see what youíre hitting. You always want to keep your chin up and keep our eyes to the sky. You donít want to have your forehead down. That can lead to concussions. Tackling is always an issue, no matter what level youíre at. It takes some time to teach proper tackling. The only way to learn it is to do it, and to do it properly. Any new guy coming in needs to understand that itís not how the NFL is. Itís not these monstrous hits. Itís about safety. Itís worth it in the long is.

Billy Sparacio, Naples First Baptist Academy
We do tackling all season long. Itís not something that we just do once a season. Blocking and tackling are the fundamentals of football. You donít want any one to get injuried. We talk to our kids about biting the football. In biting the ball, you keep your head up. When the crown of your helmet is exposed, your head is down. We donít want them to put your head down. Keep your head up. Thatís one of the things we teach. You want to get your face on the football. That automatically puts your head on the side. By keeping your face up, it also forces you to bend your knees. If youíre squatting, youíre going to keep your head up. You donít bend at the waist. Your face is up and your chest is up. Now youíre not leading with your head. Youíre not leading with your head at all. Everything is up and vertical. The injuries occur at the crown of the helmet. We take baby steps.

Sam Sirianni Jr., Fort Myers
Weíve done it the same way for a number of years. The issue of the safety of tackling was such a vital part of the game, even before what has happened the past couple of years. We sit the kids down and show a tackling video. The warning label on the helmet says itís not to be used as a weapon. It is not to be used to lead with. We have all the kids watch the video to make sure they have gotten to see the demonstration. The first day, we go through a tackling progression, starting at the very basic level. We have a tackling station. They concentrate on the head being up during the tackle. We do that every spring and every fall.

Johnny Brown, Gateway Charter
We watch the tackling video from the University of Miami, showing the proper technique. We tell them to protect themselves. We want them to keep their head up and to put their head on the side. We donít want them to put their head in their chest. Weíre getting away from that. We want them to make contact with the shoulder. The face should be up when theyíre wrapping them up.

Mike Digrigoli, Golden Gate
First thing we do is the bull the neck. You never put your head forward. Bull the neck. Thatís the technique we use. It locks your vertebrae in place. It protects the whole thing. Thatís the first thing we do. Thereís a ton of stuff we do. We teach a tackling progression. Youíre approaching someone on defense, we want you to break down within five yards of that ball carrier. We donít leave our feet. We widen our base. If you bend over, youíre going to bend your neck, and you donít want to do that. We put our hands on our hips like we have a holster. On contact, we donít make contact with the helmet. We move our head to the side. We widen our feet. Our hands go back to our hips.
Pete Fominaya, Gulf Coast
The fundamentals of building a football team start with tackling. A lot of kids come in with poor tackling habits. We start from the ground up with teaching the kids to tackle with their face up. We donít want them turning their head. Our biggest thing is teaching an awareness about it. Have your eyes open when you get a tackle. We talk about wrapping up. The injuries happen when they put their head down. We do tons of it. We do things on tackling dummies. We spend 15 to 20 minutes every day just on tackling. Itís a big part of being a successful football team.

Rich Dombroski, Immokalee
You canít tackle what you donít see. You keep your head up. In a football game, rarely do you tackle somebody where heís going to run straight into you. We teach head up. As the ballcarrier comes close to you, your shoulder should be the first thing that makes contact. And what weíre hoping is that facemask causes the ballcarrier to fumble the football.

Joe Bowen, Island Coast coach
We always walk through the proper ways to do it. You have to walk through the proper technique those first three days. The first day, we slow it down to insure their safety. You make sure your head is up, not down. You make sure your head is not down so you donít injure your spinal cord. You make sure you donít leave your feet. The bottom line is, there are a lot of bad habits. It all has to start with the Pop Warner level and work its way up. Itís changed. The emphasis on safety has increased. Back then, it was any way you can get them down, get them down. Now, thereís more awareness about concussions and spinal cord injuries.

Chris Siner, LaBelle
It used to be, back in the day, youíd put the face mask into the chest. Thatís out the window right now. What we teach is tackling not with the face mask but with the shoulder and with the head to the side. No contact with the head. We make sure you wrap up and grab cloth. I think thatís the most important part for the tackle. It used to be to put the face mask into the chest. Tackling is so much different now. Itís all about the kidsí safety.

Nate Sund, Lehigh
For us, at Lehigh, we start pretending that nobody knows the proper technique to tackle. The first day of pads, weíll get tackling dummies, and weíll put kids into stances. Weíll have them on either side, right and left. We have them push forward. The first thing we stress to them is keeping their eyes up. That way they are focusing on keeping their head up. We do that every opportunity we can get. My defensive coordinator runs that drill, and he does a great job with it. Then weíll get them into a four-point stance with their hands and their feet on the ground. We go over that over and over again. The next stage is a 2-point stance. Now itís a little more involved. Your body should be in a position it should be in for safety. If theyíre looking at them, then their head canít be down. If I see a kid putting their head down, I throw them out of the drill. I canít live with that if theyíre doing it that way. There are a lot of bad habits at the upper levels of football. The kids watch a lot of college football. A lot of guys are diving at feet. We try to teach the kids all the differences that are going to be in a game. A lot of the kids donít know the safe technique. Thatís why we teach it. Some of the kids come in and have never played football before, and they definitely have no idea the proper form to take when tackling. Some of the kids do know how.

Culmer St. Jean, Lely
Me, personally, I tell them to be is with your feet under your shoulder pads with eyes up. You donít want to make an arm tackle. I want shoulder and helmet to be on the ball carrierís outside shoulder. You have to be low. We do it a lot of ways. We show the guys how to form tackle on film. We go through all of the phases of the tackle, and then we put it all together. We break it down.

James Hale, Mariner
When we hand out equipment, we talk about it then. Everyone has to sign a piece of paper. The main thing is to never, ever duck your head. Keep your head up. We try to wrap up, and put them on the ground. Itís so hard to determine that, because everything happens so fast. You donít have time to think about it. We have talked a lot about trying to put the facemask on the ball, but itís more of an angle to the ball more than that. I think you have to go over it every day. You want the head to one side.

Bill Kramer, Naples
I just got back from the NFL summit. They promote USA tackling vernacular. Different words mean the same thing. So, for example, in USA Football, they call it buzz. We call it be in an athletic stance. Youíre going to buzz your feet. You have to be in control. You have to come in under control. Some people call it ripping. You have to keep a focal point with your eyes. Front of their shoulder pads. We donít want guys to make contact with the top of their shoulder pads but with the front of their shoulder pads. Our goal is get the center of your body across the center of their body. I want my shoulder pads to hit his near number. I want to wrap and grab cloth and run my feet. Some guys call it bulling the neck. Weíre up right. My eyes are up and open. USA Football calls it squeezing. Squeezing our shoulder blades. The NFL and many entities of organized football, theyíre all doing away with the term bite the ball. Anything that connotates your head being in or around the tackle, they donít want that term used.

Brian Makar, North Fort Myers
Hereís how we demonstrate to the players: Face on the ball. OK. Wrap arms around waist. Roll your hips, creating no space between you and the ballcarrier as you squeeze the waistline, sliding your feet, trying to step on their toes. Youíre running through the ballcarrier, putting your face on the ball. That avoids head to head contact. It avoids head to body contact. It enables you to be hitting more with your chest and shoulder. Now, this is all going with the ballcarrier being taught to carry the ball the proper way. If itís an angle to the ball, that puts your body in the way of the ballcarrier. That puts your body squared up with his body. The brunt of the hit is with your chest and shoulder. The whole concept is keeping your head up. Thatís the main point of putting the face on the ball. Some kids get it. Some kids donít. Come game time, you get the ones who dive with their heads down and dive at the ankles. Any time you go over the film, if you see somebody with their head down, you have to talk to them. I wouldnít punish a kid for using improper technique, but if it continues, then you have to keep that kid out. If you see a kid who is constantly ducking his head, you have to tell him that he canít play defense, because you are going to get hurt. If they do it once or twice, you catch them. Eventually they get it. If they donít, they are just endangering themselves. You have to find something else for that kid to do.

Jason Bowman, Oasis Charter
The thing we talk about is the first thing that makes contact is the shoulder. Arms wrapped around their waist, as low as you can get. That way you keep your head and your neck out of it. Helmet and head, we want them looking up and not making contact with their helmet. Looking down, you increase your risk for injury. We want them with their head up. A lot of our guys donít know. A lot of the guys are learning from scratch.

Damon Jones, Community of Naples
We always demonstrate on the first day with everybody before we put pads on. We talk about proper form right from the get-go. The first day of pads, we do more demonstration. We talk about head up, head up, head up. We talk about being able to see the offensive playersí chest before tackling. Our biggest thing is to demonstrate every time we do our tackling drills. We demonstrate each week the proper technique. We concentrate on seeing the target all the way to the chest and then sliding the head to the ball side. We donít want them tackling with their face in the chest. We want them to slide their face off. We want that face up all the way until just before you make contact. Then we want them to slide their head out of the point of contact.

Ryan Mitchell, Palmetto Ridge
The proper way to tackle is to take an athletic stance, your feet shoulder width apart. You want your shoulder pads to grab hold of their jersey. Youíre facing the ball. Your hips are driving into the man. Five different techniques. That stance. Step. Third, arm drive, fourth you need to talk about head position and fifth, you talk about lift. I want the face mask to bite the football. If the ball is in the right hand, your head is heading toward the ball. If I have the ball in my right arm, Iím going to put my face mask on the football. You want your neck up. Your head is going to be up, going into the football. We show videos, and we also walk through the five different steps of the tackle.

Rob Hinson, Riverdale
The main thing, with the concussions and kids being paralyzed, we go to clinic. They have a lot of terminology. The No. 1 thing is head up. Eyes to the prize. Headís up. They donít want the top of the helmet taking the brunt of the contact. The main thing is the head and the neck. They should have their chin up. See what you hit. Thatís a big buzzword. Your head canít be down and looking at the ground. You still want to keep your head in that proper position. You donít want the top of your helmet hitting a guyís knee or anything like that. We have a demo videotape, showing them the proper technique. Before we get into hitting, we have them watch that, and we have them demonstrate the proper technique. You get guys who havenít played Pop Warner, and you have some new guys who have never played football before. We treat everyone the same, like theyíve never played before. We cover all of the bases. We do it right across the board.

Grant Redhead, South Fort Myers
The biggest thing is we always tell kids, to always keep their head up. Donít drop your head. You always want to be able to see the target. The risk of injury is less. The second thing is, when you go into make the tackle and youíre close enough to touch them with your toes, to move your head off to the side so that your first point of your contact is your shoulder. On contact, you want to be sliding your head off to the side. That keeps your head out of it. You keep your head up and your head out. Then you wrap them up and keep driving your legs. Your hits donít matter. Guys can bounce right off of those and keep running. By driving your legs, theyíre going to go down. We do a four-station tackling drill. The first and second day of pads, sometimes the first three days. One is heads up. We use the one-man tackling dummy, too. We do a walk-through speed. You want to have that memory of tackling. You want to make it fundamental. Just like you want them in the same stance every time, you want them making a tackle the same way every time.

Mark Ackerman, Southwest Christian Academy
We donít separate our new kids from our veterans. We never have. Every year, we spend time with everyone with what we call the four Hís of tackling. Then we take a huge amount of practice every year. It might seem like weíre overzealous about it. The hands, we want to wrap up around the body and grab on to the back. Everythingís not going to be a perfect tackle, but when we go in there with our hands so if we donít make a good tackle, at least we can hold on. Thatís another way to put it is to grab jersey. The head, the hands, the hips and the heels. Having your head in the proper position when you make the tackle. We spend time on that. Head up. Eyes up. You are not going in with the crown of your helmet. You never go in there with crown down. You keep your hips low. Your heels, itís keeping your heels moving and never stopping your feet. The four Hís. You donít want your head to make contact with the body. You want your head to be going across and into the football, not into the body. We want our hips low, coming up through. Hereís the thing: Even if youíre tackling properly, the thing that weíre trying to prevent No. 1 is injuries. Concussions. Thatís the big thing right now.

Steve Howey, St. John Neumann
The main thing, is we get them on the field and slowly demonstrate the technique. We want their head up and their shoulders square. We want them to tackle with the shoulders and not the head, especially with the head down. We walk through it, especially that first week or so. We want them low. We emphasize the head up for several reasons. We want them to see what theyíre tackling.

- compiled by David Dorsey

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