Football coaches at Graves Co. High teaching "rugby-style tackling" in an effort to reduce concussions, improve safety for players; may be used in lower grades

Mayfield Messenger, July 24, 2016

Eagle coaches hawk new tackling system
by ERIC WALKER

Tackling and football are synonymous. But with more and more concerns raised about concussions and overall safety in sports – particularly football – coaches across the country are taking steps to make sure players stay healthy and also stay in the game.

This year, Graves County has implemented rugby-style tackling as a new way to teach this year's roster of Eagles how to take down an opponent. This method, which their coaches call "hawk tackling," was developed by Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll when he was coach at the University of Southern California and who has since utilized it with his NFL team.

The concept involves a defensive player focusing and aiming at the opposing player's hip and lower body. The initial contact by the defense is made with the shoulder and with the head positioned behind the point of attack, which is different than the traditional form with the helmet and facemask attacking the opponent's body and football.

"It takes the head completely out of the tackle, if you do it right," said GCHS head football coach Lance Gregory.

According to Gregory, the attention received from news reports about concussions and other head and neck sport injuries related started the idea of using rugby tackling in high school and lower levels of football.

Aside from his current players, coaches are also teaching it to elementary and middle school players.

"So we're doing our part to protect our sons and combat the issue of concussions," he added.

Tackling generally isn't a drill that is done until football teams start practicing in full pads. However the rugby style can be worked on during off-season drills and even indoors with mats. Since winter, Graves County's coaches and players have been working on techniques and fundamentals.

Along with reducing the risk of concussions and other head and neck injuries, Gregory hopes to see an improvement in overall tackling from last season. According to statistics listed on khsaa.org, Graves recorded a total of 583 tackles in 2015, which was down from 863 during 2014's run to the KHSAA 5A State Championship.

Last year, linebacker Brennen Culp led the way for the defense with 58 tackles (19 solo and 39 assisted). Now a senior, Culp said he's bought into the concept to get better at stopping opposing offenses while also lowering the risk of concussions.

"I've had three and I don't want to miss any games," said Culp, who started playing football in second grade.

Junior linebacker Avery Milliken, who has played football since third grade, said he was also unsure how "hawk tackling" would work or if he'd ever learn the system. But Milliken, who recorded 45 total tackles as a sophomore, noticed that working with this new style has helped.

"It causes you to focus a lot more," he explained. "Before, I was overrunning plays and they would cut back. But this has helped me track them better."

Soon the focus will move from the practice field to the main stage. Gregory said the time spent working and practicing the fundamentals is taking root so making tackles will be more instinctual when the Eagles are staring across the line of scrimmage against the likes of Hopkinsville in a month's time.

"We've worked on muscle memory so that when they're out there they don't have to think about it; it just happens," Gregory said. "We've put a lot of time in this. We'll see how it carries over onto the field on Friday nights."

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