Having coached college football for more than 35 years, I have witnessed many changes in the game. Offenses have changed from predominantly running the football and throwing only when necessary to throwing the football to set up the run. Double tight, full house backfield formations have changed to four and five wide formations. In response, defenses have also changed significantly. I would like to focus this article on some things that I believe were important to playing great defense 35 years ago and are still important today, especially linebackers.
There are five defensive concepts that we try and help our players understand each year when we report for camp that have greatly contributed to our success over the years.
1. Team Defense
2. Play aggressively
We stress that we want to be the aggressor in all one-on-one situations during the course of a football play. When you break down a play, often it is a series of one-on-one situations and we want to be the one to take the action to our opponent.
We believe that relentless pursuit of the football until the whistle blows is the single biggest factor in our success or failure as a defensive football team. Pursuit is what separates great defenses from good defenses. We have a little saying that we use that helps our players understand this concept: “Your value to our defense is in direct proportion to the distance you are from the football when the whistle blows.”
4. Field Position
Obviously our first goal when we take the field as a defense is to prevent our opponent from scoring, but secondary to that is our goal to get the ball back to our offense in the best field position possible. With that in mind, third down becomes a critical down. We want to win the third down battle 75-80 percent of the time. This concept also allows you to stress how harmful big plays are. Statistics prove time and time again that if an offense has to move the ball in small chunks of yardage, the chance of scoring is reduced dramatically.
There is no option here. If a player is going to get playing time, he must be a great tackler. You simply cannot afford to have poor tacklers playing on your defensive football team.
These are important concepts that we stress with our players every day in meetings and practice. We believe very strongly that if players understand these things, our level of success will increase.
When it comes to linebacker play, the longer I coach the more I believe in teaching our linebackers the fundamentals of their position. It is sometimes easy to get caught up in schemes and other things and forget about the fundamentals of the position. I believe very strongly that my job as a coach is to prepare my players to be able to carry out their assignments on Saturday — it is up to them to execute.
As linebackers, we work every day on the following five fundamentals. I believe that if our players can perform these fundamentals efficiently, we will be able to compete on Saturday.
My position on the importance of the stance is that a good one won’t guarantee success on any given play but a bad one will more than likely lead to failure on any given play. If the player doesn’t start the play right, it is hard to be successful. This is a fundamental that sometimes is easy to overlook, but if you have players that don’t have a great stance, you owe it to them work on it with them. The things I look for in a stance are good balance, proper width of the feet, back straight, head up, flex in the knees and hands in proper position.
2. Body Position Or Pad Level
We work every day on staying low throughout the course of a play. Leverage is going to help win most battles with offensive blockers or ball carriers. I like to start our individual periods with a very simple shuffle and upfield explosion drill that allows me to concentrate on the player’s body position and pad level throughout their rep. I am always looking for hats that come up instead of going forward.
3. Foot Speed And Agility
All coaches know that during a play, linebackers have to move and often either have to avoid or step over blockers. To be successful in doing that, linebackers have to have great feet. We spend a good portion of our individual period doing footwork drills. I incorporate the use of bags in almost all of our footwork drills because I think it helps prepare the players for all the things that may happen to them during a play.
4. Block Protection
Although blocking schemes and techniques have changed dramatically in my years of coaching, linebackers must be proficient at getting off blocks and getting to the football. I strongly believe that the best way to shed blocks is to get hands in the game as quickly as possible and create some separation. I am a firm believer in the use of the five man blocking sled to learn this concept. There are a series of drills that you can do on the sled that allow you to emphasize the importance of using the hands to get off blocks.
I have already talked about the importance of tackling to a defense. It is especially true for linebackers because more than likely, they will have the most opportunity to be tacklers during a football game. I try to incorporate finishing a rep of our linebacker drills with a tackle as often as possible. Tackling is a skill and fundamental that must be practiced each and every day.
I believe it is very important to work on these fundamentals every day. We typically have 30 minutes of individual time during practice and we spend the bulk of our time on these fundamentals. I believe that individual periods are best used for position fundamentals. Key reads and reaction can be learned during small group periods, such as inside run and skeleton pass.
In conclusion,the most important thing I have learned over the years is to not forget coaching the fundamentals because you can bet the game will change. But no matter how it changes, it always comes down to the fundamentals of blocking and tackling.
By Don DeWaard, Former Head Coach, Central College (Iowa). Coach DeWaard is currently the head coach of Team Stars & Stripes, a Global Football-organized squad of select NCAA Division III student-athletes that compete in the annual Tazón De Estrellas (Bowl of the Stars) in Tijuana, Mexico. Find more articles on defensive coaching practices at AFCA Weekly.