Ohio State defense aims to maintain improved tackling form despite fewer contact practices

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning tackles Michigan running back Hassan Haskins on Nov. 30 in Michigan Stadium.

The improvements made by Ohio State's defense last season stemmed, in part, from a basic approach.

After allowing more points than any other team in the program’s history in 2018, the Buckeyes focused on fixing the poor tackling habits.

“You think about 2018 compared to 2019, our tackling, it was crazy,” linebacker Pete Werner said.

Ultimately leading the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense, the Buckeyes benefited from an overhauled defensive staff that emphasized fundamentals, including how to approach a ball carrier and bring him to the turf.

“If we can do that again, we’re gonna have the same results,” Werner said. “That is a big contributor to how we're a great tackling team.”

There is some question whether they can replicate the performance when this fall’s season begins Oct. 24 against Nebraska. Due to limitations resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, nine months passed without the Buckeyes going through a padded practice, limiting opportunities to work on hitting.  

It wasn’t until Wednesday that they put on full pads or until Saturday when they went through a full-contact practice.

While other teams that began their seasons this month have been plagued by sloppiness, linebackers coach Al Washington offered reason to believe the Buckeyes might be in fine form in the weeks ahead.

“We've kind of put our brains together and found creative ways to still get as close to what a real tackle would be like throughout our drills and throughout our practices,” Washington said. “That is going to be a critical piece.”

Washington described one open-field drill in which a linebacker was charged with pursuing a ball carrier. It required him to find the right angle.

Werner said tracking a ball carrier is "almost 80% of how to get a guy down."

“It all starts with your approach to the ball carrier, tracking that back hip, making sure you're in a good football position,” linebacker Tuf Borland added.

There remained other good fundamentals for the Buckeyes to emphasize, or bad habits to avoid, Washington pointed out.

“The No. 1 thing guys do is they drop their eyes,” Washington said. “When you drop your eyes, you put yourself in a situation when your head goes down and you're not able to secure the tackle. The other thing we talk about is our feet. We track it. We talk about putting a near foot in the ground. And that's a critical piece, too. When you watch guys who miss tackles, usually their legs die, or usually they're out of a power base. Those are the things that really impact tackles.”

Linebacker Baron Browning said tackling has been a frequent topic for discussion because repetitions have been so limited.  

“I feel like the emphasis is 10 times higher since we haven't been in pads,” Browning said, “because we know we really haven’t had opportunities to tackle as much.”

The limited practice is combined with another motivation for Browning.

He pointed to an increase in missed tackles toward the end of last season, a problem that arose when Ohio State fell behind early before a comeback win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and in the College Football Playoff loss to Clemson.

“We want to be even better tacklers than we were last year,” Browning said. “We feel like we kind of had a little bit of drop-off at the end of the year last year. So we don't want to have a drop-off. We've put a real big emphasis on it this year, and we're trying to get better every day.”

Speaking last week, Werner was uncertain how they would perform if they were tasked with playing a game that Saturday.

He reasoned there might be a decline in comparison to last season.

But after months of an emphasis on fundamentals and with three more weeks to work out in pads, he held an optimistic outlook for a defense that is led by a veteran-laden group of linebackers.

“Give us this time going up to game one and how we fly to the ball, how our defense pursues to the ball," he said. "I think you're going to like what you see.”