Tulane’s Willie Fritz was not exaggerating when he referred to himself as the “tackling coach” before the start of spring practice.
The Green Wave is practicing tackling every day in detailed drills — with Fritz front and center, yelling instructions and corrections as he teaches his method to the team he inherited in December.
“My background is as a defensive coach, and the last time I checked, tackling’s pretty important to having a good defense,” he said. “We work on it as much as we can.”
While the technique is new to the players, it’s not that old for Fritz and his staff, either. A few days before Georgia Southern opened preseason practice in 2014, linebackers coach Michael Mutz asked Fritz to watch an instructional video, made by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, about a safer way of tackling.
The system, which Carroll called “Hawk tackling” and made available online, convinced Fritz to discard most of what he had preached in the past. Designed to take the head out of the equation in tackling, it focuses on rugby-style shoulder-leverage tackles to the thighs.
“I was really hesitant because I had a way of doing it for 25 years. But when I switched, we were much more efficient tacklers,” Fritz said. “It was amazing. There are a few things we modified, but we’re trying to practice physical tackling without hitting bodies and getting guys hurt. The majority of injuries occur with body-to-the-ground contact, so we’re trying to take the ground out of the equation as much as possible.”
In one drill they work on at every practice, an assistant rolls a tackling ring as players bring it to the ground the same way over and over. In another, a player acts as a tackling dummy, standing with a pad in front of him while a teammate takes a running start and drives him into a big cushion on the ground.
“Right shoulder, left hook,” Fritz screamed for the first half of the drill Monday before changing to “left shoulder, right hook,” singling out which players did it correctly and which ones erred.
Fritz is hardly the only convert to Carroll’s way, which has helped Seattle finish fourth, first, first and second in the NFL in total defense in the past four years. When Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff, co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash credited Carroll’s video for raising the Buckeyes’ defense to No. 19 in 2014 from No. 46 in 2014.
Coaches in Division I, Division II, Division III and high school are teaching the system, designed to decrease concussions while also helping teams fundamentally.
“We use our arms when we wrap up,” Fritz said. “We glorify all tackles, not just the big hits.”
Safety Jarrod Franklin expects a big payoff. Tulane had its moments defensively last year but finished 80th in yards allowed, giving up far too many big plays after failing to wrap up properly.
“The tackling drills they are implementing have been very good for us,” he said. “We had a problem with tackling last season, and that was a big part of our losses. Staying on it is definitely something that we need. It’s going to help us in the future.”
The transition could have been awkward for players like senior linebacker Nico Marley, who had a team-high 82 tackles last year and also made 82 stops as a sophomore. Already confident about his technique, he has been receptive to the changes.
“It’s going to help us be more efficient,” he said. “Coach Fritz knows how to win. He knows what he has to do, and he’s doing a great job at it.”
Two years into the system, Fritz has become a true believer. His Georgia Southern teams received more attention for their No. 1 rushing attack, but they also ranked 21st in total defense last season, holding opponents to 338.1 yards per game.
Coincidence or not, Tulane has not had a major injury in the first eight spring practices under Fritz.
“It’s great for football,” he said. “Number one, it keeps the head out of contact. Number two, you can do a lot of different drills and take the body to the ground. It was very gracious of Coach Carroll to share this with all levels of football.”
Fritz added one little twist.
“It’s one of the things I talk about now when I speak in clinics,” he said. “But I call it Wave tackling.”
Cornerback Parry Nickerson, who was out last week with a leg strain, missed Monday’s practice as well. … Junior defensive tackle Sean Wilson, a two-year starter who began spring drills on the third team, practiced with the first unit next to Tanzel Smart on Monday.