Tackling the Fundamentals

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s defense has missed roughly 60 tackles over the last two games, thereby forcing the coaching staff to return to the basics of football.

Associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning highlighted one primary focus during practice this week following UNC’s 70-41 loss to East Carolina.

“Tackling and tackling, and getting to the ball,” Koenning said. “We’re missing tackles at a 30-40 percent clip. There weren’t any plays where we didn’t have somebody there, technically. We just weren’t able to tackle people in space.”

That’s not a new development. UNC spent its bye week prior to the ECU game tackling to the ground for the first time in Koenning’s career after missing 34 tackles against San Diego State. While he didn’t have an exact number for the number of missed tackles against the Pirates, Koenning estimated in the 24-26 range.

Koenning’s intent is to get eight defenders within a 3-4 yard radius of the ball carrier for gang-tackling purposes, although spread offenses – such as ECU’s and Clemson’s schemes – are designed to create 1-on-1 matchups in space.

UNC’s defensive staff charted No. 1 Florida State’s tackling in its win over Clemson on Saturday night. While the Seminoles operated with a 20 percent missed tackle rate, Koenning said that they had two or three other defenders getting to the ball to limit the damage. UNC’s tacklers are not getting that degree of help.

“That’s why we charted it, because we wanted to see the No. 1 team in the country and they’ve got supposedly some of the best players in the country,” Koenning said. “And in the first quarter, I think they missed 14. Now they shut it down after that; they must have corrected the problem.”

Relying on gang tackles is a common method. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster emphasized that approach during game prep for East Carolina two weeks ago.

“We’ve got to rally to it, make sure we’re taking good angles, and can’t assume it’s going to be a tackle,” Foster said. “We can’t assume that. We don’t want any yards after the catch but it could take a couple people doing that.”

UNC head coach Larry Fedora stressed the importance of getting multiple bodies to the ball due to the emergence of spread offenses.

“You can’t rely on one person to be there all of the time to make the tackle,” Fedora said. “It’s not going to happen in college football today. I can go and watch any game on any given Saturday and I can show you missed tackles. It’s part of the game, it’s going to happen.

“You have good athletes on both sides of the ball, but the key is that you have to have multiple hats there. We have to get more people to the ball, everybody running to the football, so that if someone does break a tackle, you’ve got someone else there to put him to the ground.”

Missed tackles and the lack of gang tackles are occurring at such an alarming rate due to several factors, according to Koenning. Swarming to the ball requires defenders to get off their blocks, which only happens consistently if a defender is more athletic and explosive than the man who’s blocking him. The defender also must have a “burning desire to get to the ball.”

The other aspect is fundamentals. Koenning, who coaches safeties, said his position group has missed 24 tackles over the last two games. The primary culprit was the safeties taking poor angles to the ball carrier.

“We were not attacking the near hip, and that’s one of the things we do almost every day,” Koenning said.

UNC’s tackling method is not unique. Pete Carroll employed the same technique during his time at Southern Cal and the current Seattle Seahawks head coach has since joined the NFL in promoting shoulder tackling to youth programs nationwide using the same methods.

“It’s been a long time – probably since I was at Wyoming – that I had to try to coach all of these little bitty details,” Koenning said, “where typically you’ve got guys that just do these things and it’s not something that you’ve got to try to fix every day.”

That’s not the first time Koenning has made those types of comments during his three-year tenure at UNC. The question is whether it’s a recruiting evaluation problem or a coaching problem, a combination of both or none of the above.

Confidence also plays a role. Koenning noted Dominquie Green delivering a “spectacular” goal line tackle against San Diego State and then missing six other tackles. The sheer volume of repetition of tackling drills throughout the year would seem to solidify the fundamentals, although those fundamentals aren’t necessarily built in Pop Warner ball.

“I wouldn’t say so much mental as a habit,” bandit Shakeel Rashad said. “Tackling in high school, a lot of the guys here were just bigger than people in high school, so when I tackled people in high school, I didn’t have to focus on firing my hips. I just put the guy on the ground because I was bigger than him.”

Regardless of the details, North Carolina must show dramatic improvement in its tackling in short order to be competitive defensively as the ACC schedule kicks off on Saturday in Death Valley.

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