Fundamentals: Cornerbacks

In the second installment of our summer series on the fundamentals and techniques that shape teaching in the Mountaineer football program, cornerbacks coach Tony Gibson discusses the most important factors that are stressed at his position.

"The biggest thing that we touch on every day in practice -- every time we have an individual period -- is the stance. So many kids start with a poor stance that it causes other problems throughout the play as it's happening. We try to teach what we think is a perfect stance. From a good stance, you can get a good burst [on the snap], then get your feet right, bend at your ankles, knees and hips, and be able to get into the play. But if you don't start with a good stance, everything else gets thrown off."

Working on the stance might seem a bit simplistic at the college level, but Gibson knows, and strongly believes, that the execution of the basics is what leads to more consistent play once the ball is snapped. A player that is in the wrong position at the start will have a tougher job getting into the right spot, or executing the proper technique, in order to make the defensive call a successful one.

Teaching the proper stance isn't all about getting the player into one position before each play. There are minor variations in foot positioning and alignment on the receiver, just to name two, that must be taught and executed according to the calls Gibson makes from the sidelines.

"It depends on what kind of coverage we are in," Gibson said of the differences in the stance. "If we play a squat coverage (where the cornerback stops, or "squats" at a certain point), it might be a little more square. If we are playing man-to-man, it might be opened up a little bit. It depends on what we have called and where we are on the field."

Of course, Gibson can switch up techniques so that foes can't read the coverage by the stance the cornerback gets in.

"We can switch techniques depending on what I call," he added. "We might have a different technique for press coverage or loose man-to-man. We might have then drop to a certain yardage in a zone technique. But the basics are the same. We want to keep them square and low."

The "low" part segues into the second important fundamental – the art of backpedaling. Not many people pay attention to the corner's first few steps on a play, which are often directly backward. Backpedaling is a difficult skill to master – especially at top speed against foes that are running forward – and there are several elements that can cause it to go awry.

"You don't want your pad level to get high, so we put them under a net and have them backpedal and run to teach them to keep their pads low," Gibson said of one drill. "Everything we do goes back to balance, and keeping their pads low helps with that.

"[Most players coming in] just don't know how to control their body and their weight," he continued. "They will get too much weight leaning backward or too much forward, or they aren't smooth in the transition from backpedaling into a forward run. That causes late breaks on the ball, because everything gets thrown off. A guy catches the ball and you can't get there because you couldn't break quickly enough, and that's usually because of balance. If you have too much weight going back you can't drive forward. Or, if you have too much weight forward you can't get your hips open and run."

‘Opening the hips' is a phrase often heard in football, but it's not a mysterious secret. It simply refers to the ability to turn and run forward out of the backpedal. The first, and most important step, is the one which changes the body position from the backpedal stance to the sprinter's stance, and those that can execute that 180 degree change of body position have a great advantage in doing so. Players that have ‘good hips' can do it more easily than those who don't.

"A lot of this is natural ability," Gibson said in discussing change of direction ability. "If you have a kid with stiff hips, it's hard to make him smooth backpedaling. He can have trouble with the transition where he has to open his hips and run with a receiver on a vertical route. We can keep working it, but it's a lot harder with stiffer hips. The player has to work at in flexibility and try to get that better. When we look at a kid, that's the first thing we look at: change of direction, speed, and hips. That's a main focus in recruiting."

With an abundance of natural skills, a player with minimal or bad technique can be taught – and even might wind up in the NFL.

"As far as bad technique, PacMan was one that we had to teach everything," Gibson said of the former Mountaineer star. "He had never played corner. He was a rush end and tailback in high school -- kind of a strong safety type on defense. There was nothing I did to make his feet or hips better – that was all natural. God gave him that. We just tried to get him tuned up with the techniques and fundamentals, and he learned that and became a great player."

On the flip side are players who come in with great understanding of the necessary fundamentals.

"Anthony Mims was a great technician from day one," Gibson recalled. "His father was a coach and played in the NFL."

Gibson also occasionally has to break down some of the things that were taught to his players in high school.

"A lot of people have different philosophies," he said of the myriad techniques taught to cornerbacks. "High school coaches might teach something totally different than we do, so it might take a kid four or five months to adjust to what we are telling them. Once they see it and do it they can get better at it, but that's why it goes back to fundamentals.

"Every day, we work on the stance. We backpedal. If I were to drop dead during individual drills, they'd still know exactly what to do, because we work on it every day. It doesn't change. We just try to get them fundamentally sound. That's the number one thing for us."

Previous Articles in the Series

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