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Switch to rugby-style tackling pays off for Buckeyes

04/08/2015, 12:34am EDT
By By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS WRITER
New tackling method pays off for OSU

Ohio State defensive co-coordinator Chris Ash discovered a new tackling method on YouTube. The Blade

COLUMBUS — The roles Cardale Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, and the rest of Urban Meyer’s unordinary football team played in leading Ohio State to a national title last year are endlessly documented.

A lesser known but almost as important factor: a late-night YouTube session.

Chris Ash knows it sounds crazy.

Months after he was hired as the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator last offseason, he came upon a 15-minute instructional video on the Internet, experienced a flash of inspiration, and proposed to a staff of veteran coaches that they do more than just forget everything they had ever learned about tackling. He wanted to teach another sport.

Naturally, he said, “Nobody was on board.”

A year later, the Buckeyes are not only practiced rugby tacklers. They may be the best tackling team in college football.

The radical shift from hitting high to low — a lead-with-the-shoulder technique that stresses tackling the legs — transformed an area of weakness in 2013 into a pillar of a championship season. By Meyer’s count, the Buckeyes missed the fewest tackles in the nation last season.

Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs called the new style a “game-changer.”

“I'm blessed that I was able to watch that video when I did,” Ash said. “I can’t even honestly tell you how I stumbled across it on the Internet, but I’m glad I did.”

The video is a tutorial filmed last year by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who became fascinated by how sound the tackling is in rugby despite players wearing no helmets or pads. At a time of increased concern surrounding head injuries, he realized bringing the rugby style to football would be safer and — in part because that meant they could practice the technique so often — more effective.

“Rugby players take the head out of the game,” Carroll told reporters at the Super Bowl in February. “We practice this without helmets, without pads.”

Ash became captivated too. He watched Carroll’s video some 20 times, then began scouring the web for videos of rugby matches and rugby tackling drills. The more he watched, the more he wondered, “Are we doing the right thing, really?”

Beyond the safety component, tackling the legs instead of wrapping up high just seemed to make more sense.

“The goal is to stop the leg drive of a running back,” said the 41-year-old Ash. “You get a big running back like [Ezekiel Elliott] against a smaller defensive guy, and he’s going to run through a lot of tackles, and you saw that throughout the course of last year. But by stopping the leg drive because you’re wrapping the knees and wrapping the thighs, you’re able to stop ballcarriers a lot easier that way.”

Convincing Meyer and the rest of the staff to implement a wholesale change took some time.

“Because we’re not a bunch of 25-year-old coaches,” Ash said. “Everyone’s been around, and everyone’s had quite a bit of success. Everyone’s coached really good players, really good teams. You’re not going to jump in.”

Ultimately, though, they did. The staff and players rewired their years of training during the summer, and the results became increasingly apparent as the season went on.

The best part for coaches was they could suddenly practice tackling a whole lot more often, including without pads. Even in the days before the Buckeyes’ win against Oregon in the national championship game, players went through live drills. This spring, they have tackled every practice.

“We work on it as much as anyone,” Meyer said.

Ash is unsure if the rugby style will soon become the norm, knowing that many are entrenched in their ways. For the Buckeyes, though, it is their gain.

“It’s different, and if you get out of your comfort zone, not a lot of people are willing to do that,” Ash said. “We did, and it paid off.”

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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