There’s no irrefutable science attached to this particular matter. It’s a simple question to say out loud, but challenging answer to nail down: How much hitting and to-the-ground tackling do you do? Coaches ask that in normal seasons. And then there is this strange duck that is 2020.
It looms as important as ever. It’s the pursuit of proper balance after a long offseason, with basically no spring football, then a seven-week delay to a fall season. Now Nebraska has three weeks of practices before it plays one of the best teams in the country in Ohio State. It was only this last week when Big Ten teams began the move into pads.
“I think it’s very important that you take a good picture of your kids, and you see the hits that they’re taking,” said offensive line coach Greg Austin. “You calculate, ‘OK, how many times are we hitting? What type of hitting are we doing situationally? Is it third-down-and-short?’ I think that it’s very important from a holistic perspective to look at the amount of times you’re hitting per week. All these things are calculated in camp.
“This is kind of a unique deal in that you have this short window to get as much hitting as you can in. For the last few months, we’ve been working our scheme, working our scheme, working our scheme. I think our kids know their assignments. Now it’s just a matter of how do we get those guys in position to where we’re teaching the techniques and the fundamentals of striking and driving and pressing up front – bodies on bodies. How many times can we get that done?”
There’s no chapter in some book about Lombardi or something that gives the definitive answer on how to proceed in a time like this. You want a fresh and healthy team. You also want to have it prepped to tackle and respond adequately to the physical nature of a true game. Those who have been watching college football in the early weeks could probably spot some teams who weren’t yet ready to take on the rigors required when score is actually being kept.
After Navy lost its opener by 52 points to BYU, the Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo said, “It was like one team was playing normal football and we were playing touch football. One team was playing a game. We were scrimmaging. . . . We weren’t prepared. That’s my fault. I was hoping for a miracle, so to speak.”
There was sort of a worst-case scenario highlighted there, as Navy football really didn’t get any of its normal summer workouts, and didn’t have close to the daily antigen testing now in play for the Big Ten, causing Niumatalolo to take such a cautious approach in the weeks before his team’s opener. But it highlighted during a nationally-televised game in Week 1 what could happen to a team that doesn’t do any necessary prep work in the deep end, even if time isn’t on its side.
In Nebraska’s case, the hope is there will be a payoff from most of the players getting back on campus and jumping into summer workouts as allowed in June. They’ve also gone fast in drills during some on-field work. It’s just that without the pads, you don’t get the true experience a game brings.
So what’s someone like Austin thinking about in that regard in these weeks ahead?
“I’ll just give you an example: A guy like Matt Farniok … he’s going to run full speed no matter what. He’s going to strike and drive. You’re going to have to take care of Matt Farniok. Certain other guys that are young, they’re still learning how to strike and drive. They’re still learning how to hit. You’re going to have to put those guys in a little different regimen, give those guys a little bit more reps. So it’s a healthy blend … Certainly you want to get the experienced guys their share of strikes and their hitting that they need to get their pads prepared, their bodies acclimated to striking, that they need to have by Oct. 24. But in some cases it’s a case-by-case basis.
“I can tell you right now: Turner Corcoran is going to need more striking and driving than Brenden Jaimes, just looking at those two players. Same thing for a guy like Bryce Benhart (compared to) Brenden Jaimes.”
Now less than three weeks until the opener, the Huskers have the offense installed, according to offensive coordinator Matt Lubick’s Zoom interview with reporters a few days ago. He struck an optimistic tone about how quarterbacks and receivers have gelled, which included guys putting in a lot of work in their own away from the structured practice format.
“I think we’re on the same page … Now it’s about getting that same timing that we had without pads, with pads, and getting crisp with blocking and tackling and throwing in pads,” Lubick said.
The Huskers have been practicing more inside Memorial Stadium than they usually did in past years too, getting used to playing in a setting like that without hardly any people around. Both Lubick and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander stressed the importance of creating your own energy, knowing that some odd gameday backdrops without fans await.
When it comes to the discussion of how much live-tackling and scrimmage work to do in the practices ahead, Lubick said Husker staff are having those discussions daily.
“We’ve got to stay healthy, but we also got to become better blockers, better tacklers and be able to execute in pads,” Lubick said this past Thursday. “Coach Frost does a tremendous job of kind of balancing that. Each day we talk about, ‘Hey, are we hitting here too much?’ Are we not hitting enough?’ It’s kind of a work in progress, daily gauge, but right now, the fact we’re going in pads, we got to get crisp. Because at the end of the day, football is about blocking and tackling and you can only do so much when you’re not in pads.”
One hopeful advantage in Lubick’s mind?
“It’s a tribute to our guys, because we’ve been able to practice … as close as you can to going contact (while) in non-pads,” he said. “To do that, both sides of the ball have to protect each other. Because you can go full speed and take off and still practice the proper tackle angles, standing the guy up. You still want to be competitive, but you’ve got to do that while you protect your teammates … We look at it this way: we’re not competing against each other, we’re competing for each other and they’ve really bought into that.”
Of course, it’s not all just about introducing live to-the-ground work to practices in some form, but also drilling specific game situations: like third-and-shorts, red zone scenarios, four-minute offense……
And then there’s that elephant in the corner. Husker head coach Scott Frost on Friday acknowledged some positions are a little less ready numbers-wise to withstand injury setbacks and any COVID-19 positive tests than others.
You can put all the safeguards in place and still not anticipate for sure what will happen. “The one thing we’ve looked at is how many players we have at each position that have tested positive for the virus or tested positive for antibodies,” Frost said. “We feel good about our ability to field a team at a lot of positions. There’s some others where we don’t have any of our guys who have had the virus or have antibodies, so you just never know. I don’t think there’s any way to handle that. If a couple of those positions we have three or four guys get it and are out 21 days (by the Big Ten’s rule), it’s going to be hard for us to figure out a way to get ready to play. That’s just the way it is. … There are a couple of positions on our team where we could get real short, real fast.”
So many things to ponder that aren’t just football-related, and yet success still will only come if you can move people in the trenches or tackle with assuredness in space, just as it is always is with football.
On his offensive line, Austin said one think he’ll be watching closely is the fatigue factor’ during a practice. What’s your leg drive like at the end compared to your first rep? Has the intensity dipped?
“I think that’s when you understand and you know – that you can start practice and you can end practice kind of in the same way … from a strike and stamina standpoint, then that’s when you know, ‘All right, we’re there.'”