Penn State Football

Walt Moody | 'Thud' doesn't tackle whole problem: More schools getting away from live tackling practice

C'mon, tell the truth.

Until recently, you had never heard of the term “thud tackling.”

Honestly, it sounds like the noise (thud) that is made when a linebacker smacks a tailback (tackling).

But following Penn State’s 34-31 loss to Central Florida last week, thud tackling has become part of the vocabulary in Nittany Nation.

In that contest, the Nittany Lion defense missed several (OK, maybe as many as a couple dozen) tackles as the Knights piled up 507 yards of total offense.

To say the least, the faithful were exasperated. Rarely has the Nittany Lion defense been carved up like that (288 yards passing, 219 on the ground), especially in Beaver Stadium.

Something or someone had to be the blame, right?

Immediately after the game, the topic turned to thud tackling.

Honestly, before ESPN took a behind the scenes look at the program, I had never heard the term. Thud tackling is used in practice to basically hit without hitting. The ballcarrier is hit initially, but not brought to the ground.

The design is to keep players healthy by limiting the heavy contact.

It makes sense.

How many of your favorite NFL teams had players suffer season-ending injuries in training camp?

If players are truthful, they’ll tell you they’re pretty beat up and sore after a Saturday afternoon of pounding and it takes a while to heal. With the speed and ferocity of the game — something you can really appreciate when you are at field level — it’s easy to see why the players would feel the effects for several days.

There’s no need with a 12-game schedule to beat them up more during the week. The days of the Junction Gang are long gone.

“It’s very rare that teams go live anymore,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien explained this week. “If you look at pro football, you’re only allowed 17 live practices a year, and that’s trickled down to college.”

It’s come down in a deluge.

O’Brien estimated that 120 schools are using thud tackling. CDT beat writer Travis Johnson confirmed this week that two of those schools are Alabama and South Carolina, which feature two of the stoutest defenses in the Southeastern Conference and in the country.

Thanks to NCAA sanctions, O’Brien has even fewer scholarship players for practice. He’s down to 71 this season, on the way to 65 he’s required to be at next fall. Those numbers are far below the 85-player maximum.

While all of this makes sense, it comes into conflict with some wisdom that we’ve heard for years.

“Practice makes perfect.”

So how can you practice tackling when you don’t really tackle?

And when you miss a boatload of tackles, there has to be a reason.

So my colleagues and more than a few fans initially pointed the finger at thud tackling. We’d seen the ESPN season preview and that was an easy culprit.

But with so many other schools using it, thud tackling can’t be the only problem.

Sometime players just miss tackles. It happens on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Heck, UCF missed its share Saturday, too (Richy Anderson broke at least a half dozen).

And when they start missing, it’s like the chicken pox — extremely contagious.

The other thing glaring Saturday was that several missed tackles came after Penn State players took poor angles of pursuit. Bad angles lead to arm tackles.

“I felt we were aligned improperly sometimes,” O’Brien said. “So those are things we can correct. We have to do better and we will do better.”

While tackling may be part of the concerns on defense, there are several more heading into Saturday’s clash with Kent State.

With several pass-happy Big Ten teams looming on the schedule, the Nittany Lions have to figure out how to get some pressure on the quarterback. Penn State has just five sacks so far.

End Deion Barnes, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season, has yet to get a sack. Teams, like UCF, are using running backs to chip Barnes, basically a double-team when he’s rushing the passer.

Penn State’s outside linebackers are making few tackles and no big plays. And the young secondary got an education last week from a legitimate NFL prospect in the Knights’ Blake Bortles.

Unless something really crazy happens against Kent State (the Nittany Lions are three touchdown favorites), Penn State will have a week of live action, plus the following bye week to work some things out.

Maybe, by then, thud will be just a sound.