‘This game is under attack’: Rutgers’ Chris Ash uses rugby to tackle football safety

The Scarlet Knights coach wants to reduce head injuries using rugby technique. On Saturday he faces Ohio State, another team looking to the other oval ball

On a hot practice field at the Hale Football Center in Piscataway, New Jersey, Chris Ash rolls a large rubber ring across the FieldTurf. A member of the Rutgers defense runs forward, low-slung, helmet glinting in the sun, and hits it with his right shoulder.

The head coach picks up the ring, barks advice, then rolls it again. The player runs low and hits with the left, head tucked to the side, legs driving through the tackle. A rugby tackle, in other words, carried out over and again next to a glistening scarlet endzone.

This game is under attack, Ash says later, sitting in the shade of the stadium on the last day of summer, fall and football looming. We want it to be a safer game, we want it to be a game thats around for a long time, we want it to be a game that parents feel safe about their sons playing.

Its our job to make that happen. If there are safer ways to coach and teach and improve the game, then thats our obligation.

Hence the ring, and hence Rutgers work with, and Ashs seat on the advisory board of, Atavus, a Seattle-based company that wants to improve safety in football tackling via the introduction of rugby techniques.

Football pro, college, high-school, Pop Warner has a serious problem with head injuries. Suicides among former pros Dave Duerson, Junior Seau have shone a brutal light on a sport built on collision, much of it head-to-head and head-to-body. Hollywood made a conspiracy thriller. In real life, the NFL reached a $1bn, 65-year settlement with affected ex-players. There have been deaths in high-school games.

Ash, a defensive specialist, is in the first year of a contracted five at Rutgers, a deal worth $11m guaranteed. He previously worked at Drake, San Diego State, Iowa State, Wisconsin and Arkansas and for his new teams opponents on Saturday, Ohio State. Two years ago, while with the Buckeyes, he saw a YouTube video in which Pete Carroll explained why his Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks, inspired by rugby and working with Atavus, were seeking to take the head out of the tackle.

My son found it. Ash says, It wasnt me that was looking for something. But I studied it over and over and over. It was thought-provoking, it made me listen to the coaching points [Carroll] was making about how they tackle and why they tackle, so I went on a couple of months research project, re-evaluating what we taught and what was actually showing up on game film.

I was teaching tackling a certain way, the way that most coaches have been taught themselves, but as I studied game film from everywhere that Id been I couldnt find it on film. So I said, Theres something really wrong here. Either were really bad coaches or our players are resistant to what were coaching them to do, because its not there.

Traditional football tackling, head across the body and bite the ball, was not just dangerous. It didnt really work and the players seemed to know it.

At Ohio State, Ash said, this caused us to basically self-evaluate, to make what was happening on film happen on the practice field. And what we found was players were doing rugby-style tackling on the game field. We felt it was a more effective way to tackle, it was a safer way to tackle and its what our players did naturally anyway.

Game film is Ashs lodestar. Watch the game film, study the game film, show the game film. At practice, three cameras watch from cranes as the defense runs against the offense of the next foe. Thats two and a half hours more film to analyse and, where tackling is involved, to send for analysis by Atavus.

Its a violent tackle but the heads out of it

In a video from 2014, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll discusses his use of rugby tackling.

On the sideline, as linemen the size of Alps amble past, Ron Lloyd shows me the other way of tackling, the football way. Basically, he headbutts me gently in the kidneys. I imagine such contact at full speed, the incoming head rattling in a shell of Riddell plastic.

Lloyd has a business background and missionary zeal. A high-school coach, he is ever-ready with an anecdote about his own days as a quarterback, a spiral pass with a spare ball, a stat or a fact on the game. Hes also president of football for Atavus.

Practice and game film from teams working with Atavus Rutgers, Washington, Ohio State, Nebraska, a spread of high-school programmes is sent to Seattle for analysis. Under Lloyd and coach Rex Norris, Atavus also provides coach training, designed drills and bespoke online support, all designed to make coaches and players Atavus Tackle Trained. Such services have a price: Nebraska, the Associated Press reported, is paying Atavus $100,000 in 2016 and $80,000 in 2017.

At Rutgers, players keep hitting the ring, rolling on the turf with the hit. To a rugby eye, its a slightly odd sight.

We dont coach the roll, Lloyd says, with attention to minutiae typical of football. The roll is the outcome of a good tackle in a negative situation. A positive situation is a hit to stop the ball-carrier for no gain or a loss. A negative situation involves momentum: the man is brought down but he will gain yardage.

We are about helping get players in place to make a higher percentage of positive tackles in a game what we call to dominate in the tackle.

And therein lies the crux, and possibly the paradox, of the Atavus project. Teaching rugby tackling is meant to make tackles safer, not safe. Contact and collision sports can never be truly safe, and those who play or coach them will never wish them so.

When we started teaching here, says Ash, a driven and forensic coach who happily uses the word clinic as a verb, we showed em video clips of rugby tackles, we showed em the physical nature of rugby tackles, how it is a violent tackle but the heads out of it.

If [rugby players] can do it, why cant we? If theyre able to dominate ball-carriers the way they do, if theyre able to track ball-carriers the way they do, why cant we do it out here in football?

The violent hit remains the aim of the game. Nate Gerry, a safety for Nebraska, told the AP that though it took a while to get the rugby tackle into muscle memory the science behind it, the explosion of power and using your hips more I like it.

Its supposed to be just as violent but safer than what weve been learning.

By any standard, rugby is not safe. In union and league, concern is rising over the effects of head injuries. In the UK, scientists and doctors have called for junior play to be non-contact while former players tell alarming tales of a pro culture become obsessed with the hit.

Nor, in either sport, is the tackle the only collision. In football, linemen clash in a clacking blur of helmets and padding. In rugby, without serious padding or helmets which some say makes the game inherently safer, the head and body not having been weaponised forwards nonetheless hit rucks and mauls at top speed, smashing bodies into bodies in a bid to win the ball.

Asked how Rutgers switch to rugby tackling is working, Ash says: We dont yet have any empirical data that says weve reduced the number of concussions. But I know from watching film we have reduced the number of blows to the head in tackling.

Tackling hurts, lets be honest. Youre going to throw your body in there, especially if youre doing it head first, it hurts. But I see my players now attacking the ball carrier more, with more confidence and more violence, because their head is out of it.

Rugby-like rules

Akrum
Iowa Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley breaks a Rutgers tackle. Photograph: Langish/CSM/REX/Shutterstock

Rutgers is 250 years old. A shade under 150 years ago, in November 1869 and on a field now buried under a gymnasium, it hosted the very first game of college football: a 6-4 win over Princeton. It was 25-a-side, the Rutgers team wore scarlet turbans and the rules were rugby-like.

In September 2016, there isnt much rugby-like about practice. Vast speaker systems play hip-hop House of Pain, inevitably as drills and reps runs in five-minute periods, everything at military clip. Coaches wear camo hats and shout at their men like sergeants. The more senior the coach the more raw the fury, the more commendations and condemnations peppered with parade ground f-bombs and, towards the end of the morning, the more hoarse the voice.

Its a very male environment, very football, although other than when the linemen retreat to a small grid field-side and hurtle at each other to practice blocking, there isnt much actual contact. This is a cultural development, partially under the direction of the all-powerful NCAA.

Some programmes have taken contact completely out of practice. In the Ivy League, for example, Dartmouth use a robot tackle dummy called the Mobile Virtual Player, or MVP. Big Green coaches say players make between 500 and 800 tackles in practice each year, and figure that removing player-on-player contact has brought practice-field concussions down by 80%.

Other advocates of tackle-free practice cite studies that show that 60% to 75% of head-trauma incidents in high-school football happen in practice, not in games.

I ask Coach Ash how his players, none of whom had ever played or seen rugby before, are taking to their new tackling style.

I look at when I was at Ohio State when we first started doing it in 2014, he says. We didnt start doing it until training camp it wasnt really until the middle of the 2014 season that we saw it take off.

Here we started in the spring, and Im hoping everyone will be all in on what were doing, the confidence will be extremely high, and well be a very effective football tackling team.

The next measure of success will be taken on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, when Rutgers face another Atavus-aided Big Ten team, its defense part-built by Ash and now led by a former Rutgers head coach, Greg Schiano.

In the AP rankings, Urban Meyers 3-0 Buckeyes are No2 in the nation. Rutgers, at 2-2 after a 14-7 home loss to Iowa that was equal parts encouraging and frustrating, do not place. If nothing else, in front of more than 100,000 at the Horseshoe, the Scarlet Knights will have a chance to show the benefits of all that rugby tackling practice.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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