Cats revisit art of tackling

ccosby@herald-leader.comSeptember 29, 2010 

Kentucky Florida Football

Florida's Trey Burton, left, ran past Kentucky cornerback Mychal Bailey on an 11-yard touchdown pass play during the first half Saturday.

JOHN RAOUX — AP

  • Saturday

    Kentucky at Mississippi

    When: 12:20 p.m.

    TV: WKYT-27

Tackle: v. To stop an opponent carrying the ball by forcing the opponent to the ground.

Sounds simple enough, doesn't it?

But the University of Kentucky football team made it an adventure last week at No. 7 Florida, missing numerous tackles en route to allowing six touchdowns by freshman quarterback Trey Burton in a 48-14 loss.

UK Coach Joker Phillips and defensive coordinator Steve Brown said the basic fundamentals of tackling have become a lost art with some young players.

"I don't know if people grow up tackling anymore," Phillips said. "You tackle with your face and feet. You don't tackle with your arms, and that's the thing some of our guys are missing. It's just like catching. A lot of people think you catch with your hands. You don't catch with your hands. You catch with your eyes first then your hands. It's the same thing with tackling. So when you see a ball dropped, it's usually because his feet and his eyes aren't in the right position. You've got to see the ball, you've got to see what you're tackling, and when your head and eyes go down, you're not seeing what you're hitting."

"I think a lot of guys have gotten by on just athletic ability," Brown said. "But when you're actually in a ball game and you're going against speed of that magnitude, they can make you look crazy. They can make you look out of control."

Phillips compared tackling at the youth and prep levels to free-throw shooting in basketball.

"How many times do you see a big-time basketball recruit who's been to all these ABCD Camps and Nike Camps and can't shoot a free throw?" Phillips said. "That happens in your back yard. Hell, I can still shoot a free throw."

Senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said tackling isn't as easy as it sounds or looks, especially against a team with the speed and talent of Florida. The Wildcats might have gotten a false sense of security after opening the season with Louisville, Western Kentucky and Akron.

"There's nothing basic about it," Lumpkin said. "You have to practice the fundamentals every day. People think it's like riding a bike, but it's not. You can play some teams and barely tackle them and they'll fall. But in this conference, you're playing grown men who are going to get drafted in the first round and know what they're doing. If you mess up, they're going 80 yards for a touchdown."

"The speed was definitely a lot faster (at Florida); the players were a lot better," junior linebacker Ronnie Sneed said. "We work on tackling, but at the same time they work on making us miss. That's what they do."

The best time to work on tackling is in practice, but once the season gets going, the risk of injury makes it a double-edged sword. Phillips said the defense focused on getting to the ball and getting their faces and feet to ball-carriers, which he says is the key to tackling, instead of taking people to the ground. Several players are still nursing injuries, and with UK about to face the meat of its SEC schedule, Phillips has to exercise some caution.

"You've got to get guys to the game, too," Phillips said. "Some guys have bumps and bruises that don't allow you to tackle."

Also, it's hard to get the kind of looks on the practice field that a team like Florida is going to give you in a game.

"It's hard to simulate the real deal in practice," Sneed said. "You try and do the little things, like at the end of a run wrap up and stop the running back's feet. It's something you practice and work at. When you get in the game and bullets are flying, you have to incorporate it and make the play."

The Wildcat defense has suffered some major personnel losses. Tackle Corey Peters and cornerback Trevard Lindley were both NFL Draft picks, and All-SEC linebackers Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell were both invited to NFL camps. UK also lost two projected starters (cornerback Paul Warford and tackle Mister Cobble) in the pre-season to academics.

Phillips and Brown both said that can't be used as a crutch, however.

"We can't look back and say if we had Corey Peters or guys that we lost to academics," Phillips said. "We've got enough good athletes that if we do what we're supposed to do, we'll still have a chance to have a very good defense."

"As a coach, you don't ever give yourself an out, I don't care if he's a fifth-year walk-on, you're going to try to make him a great player. Sometimes you tend to look at it and say, 'Well...' But you can't allow yourself as a coach to do that. You have to get whoever you got to get them ready and prepared and see what happens. We've had some guys do some good things who haven't played much, but collectively we've got to get better."

Brown has caught a lot of heat in the days after the Florida game, but he believes a lot of that can be solved just by improved tackling.

"That's the only way," he said. "Even if we're not in the perfect call, it just boils down to tackling the guy. They're going to make some plays, but they won't turn into big plays."

Brown said he's focused on getting the defense on track and has tuned out all of the opinions that have been expressed in the aftermath of the Florida game.

"My only thought process is how to get the players better," Brown said. "It's hard to enjoy victory because you're trying to get them better, and it's tough to endure a loss. But it's not what they say about me. If it's about getting these guys better then you're less apt to hear about or pay attention to what people say."

Bengals safety visits practice

Cincinnati Bengals safety Chris Crocker, who had a pass deflection and a big hit on quarterback Jimmy Clausen in a 20-7 win over Carolina on Sunday, was at UK's practice Tuesday and spoke with the team.

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