During Jeff Hafley's seven seasons as an assistant in the NFL, he noticed a familiar pattern:
His teams’ tackling improved throughout their preseason schedule.
“In the first preseason game, you miss a lot of tackles,” Hafley said. “Then preseason two, you miss a little less. In preseason three, you're still missing too many. And then usually around the first (regular-season) game, you got it.”
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The road map does not exist at his current stop — college football teams do not have exhibition games. It was the reason Hafley, the new defensive co-coordinator for Ohio State, encouraged additional tackling in preseason training camp this month.
Most defenses need the practice before the season, and the Buckeyes required extra work. Missed tackles hurt them last season when they allowed more points than any other group in school history, prompting coach Ryan Day to revamp most of the defensive coaching staff before his first season leading the program.
Day said this week that he was eager to see improvement in the opener Saturday against Florida Atlantic at Ohio Stadium. He mentioned tackling on several occasions during his weekly news conference Tuesday.
Hafley, who runs the defense with former Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison, referred to it as one of their highest priorities.
“I say this, and I believe this with all my heart, that defensive football is about lining up, having your eyes in the right place, running as hard and as fast as you can and tackling,” Hafley said. “That's the biggest thing we have to do in this football game.”
Players heard about tackling often in the past month.
“We’ve emphasized it,” linebacker Tuf Borland said.
Defensive tackle Robert Landers said tackling had been practiced “a lot.”
“Even on days when we're not in pads and we're not fully hitting,” Landers said, “we're going through the mechanics of tackling, pressing the hips, taking proper pursuit angles.”
Statistics cannot fully portray Ohio State’s tackling issues from last fall, but it was seen in some of the more difficult moments. Purdue receiver Rondale Moore broke several tackles as he turned a swing pass from David Blough into a 43-yard touchdown catch in a 49-20 rout of the Buckeyes in October. It was their sole loss, but it kept them from returning to the College Football Playoff.
Most players and coaches willingly conceded throughout the offseason that it was an area that needed to be shored up.
“That’s one of the things we struggled with last season,” Landers said, “and it put us in a bind in quite a few games.
"Tackling is the meat and potatoes of the game. Tackling, blocking and protecting the ball. Those are the three biggest elements of how to play football, and we've hit on that so much this offseason that I feel like our improvement of developing on tackling, not only as individuals but as a team, is going to be completely different than last season.”
Day stressed that other intangibles would boost the team’s tackling performance. He recalled watching ESPN's college football 150th anniversary documentary late Saturday. As he recalled the film, clips of one of his legendary predecessors remained stuck in his mind.
“Woody Hayes was talking about toughness for like 15 minutes,” Day said. “It was really cool because that's the essence of Ohio State.”
The approach, more than four decades old, remains relevant, he said.
“We hit it right on the head with this thing: It's all about toughness,” Day said. “And tackling is being tough.”