Penn State players watched the tape. They saw the miscues and mistakes — mainly missed tackles — that haunted them in their recent loss to UCF.
They refuse to blame a lack of full tackling in practice as a reason why UCF was able to rack up 507 yards of total offense in a 34-31 win.
Penn State has relied on ‘thud’ tackling — wherein players don’t bring a teammate to the ground — in practice since the start of the regular season. The Nittany Lions used a handful of full-contact practices during training camp but it’s been ‘thud’ ever since. The hope is, a lack of full tackling will keep players healthy throughout the week.
It has taken on a new significance at Penn State where the Nittany Lions have only 71 scholarship players on the roster and must be down to 65 before the start of next season per NCAA sanctions. Recently, with Penn State’s struggles to bring down UCF players in the open field, it’s become a key talking point for Penn State coach Bill O’Brien to downplay.
O’Brien was asked about ‘thud’ three times during his press conference on Tuesday.
“It has nothing to do with thud,” O’Brien said of his team’s defensive lapse against UCF. “One hundred twenty teams in the country basically practice with thud. It’s very rare that teams go live anymore.”
The use of “thud” wasn’t detrimental in Penn State’s first two games against Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, when there were few tackling issues and the Nittany Lions gave up a combined 443 total yards.
Nearly every FBS program in the country uses ‘thud’ and every Big Ten team limits contact to some degree in practice. Illinois is among a handful of teams that use thud exclusively during the season like Penn State.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said his staff uses “three tempos” to approach live tackling or the lack thereof. Sometimes the Wolverines limit contact to just trying to strip the football. Other days during the week are strictly thud while more rarely, the Wolverines will tackle live.
“It’s something that as you get into the season I think you have to be smart in what you do because you need every guy on the team,” Hoke said. “I think the other part of it is you’ve got to do a great job staff wise. I think when you’re talking, how many times you teach and go through the fundamentals.”
Some of the top tackling teams in the country also use ‘thud’ practices exclusively.
Alabama, a defense that has consistently ranked among the most sure-tackling units in the country, rarely tackles live.
“It’s mostly ‘thud,’” Crimson Tide Director of Football Communications Jeff Purinton told the Centre Daily Times. “They go two days a week in full pads but no one ever fully brings someone to the ground.”
The South Carolina defense hasn’t suffered from a lack of live tackling, either.
The Gamecocks are among the top teams with 28 tackles for losses and use “thud” tackling exclusively during the season too, South Carolina Sports Information Director for Football Steve Fink told the Centre Daily Times.
The frequency with which other teams limit full tackling is a reason O’Brien isn’t buying into the use of ‘thud’ as a reason for defensive deficiencies.
“It has to do with proper technique. It has to do with wanting to make the tackle,” O’Brien said. “It has to do with being aligned properly. It has to do with how you take the block on. It will improve. Again, I give credit to Central Florida. They're a good football team. They have some good skill players. Sometimes we tackled them, sometimes we didn't. We watched the tape. We’ll learn from it.”
The NCAA has largely learned from and begun to adopt similar practice guidelines of the NFL as a movement to protect players has trickled down from the pro game.
The “thud” practice regimens have become routine in the NFL, where a new collective barganing agreement, signed before the start of the 2011 season, put serious limitations on the amount of live tackling sessions NFL teams can use during the regular season.
Training camps are almost strictly “thud” while teams can only hold 14 full-contact practices during the regular season. Eleven of those practices must be held during the first 11 weeks of the season. After season-ending knee injuries to two of his starters, Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly prohibited full tackling for the remainder of camp.
O’Brien saw full-contact practices waning season-by-season during his tenure with the New England Patriots. He said Penn State still practices with physicality in mind, however.
“We hit in practice. We’ll have nine-on-seven (Tuesday),” O’Brien said. “We probably hit at Penn State more than a lot of teams that are out there. It has nothing whatsoever to do with that.”
Senior linebacker Glenn Carson, who is second on the team with 22 tackles — one behind DaQuan Jones — agreed.
“I really don’t think it has anything to do with the ‘thud’ tackling,” Carson said. “It’s part of the game now. You kind of have to continue to take it a little bit more easy in practice. Basically the missed tackles came down to fundamental mistakes. You’ve just got to work on those fundamentals and you can practice tackling fundamentals without putting full pads on and tackling and scrimmaging every day at practice.”