O'Brien acquits 'thud' for unsound defense

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- "Thud" has become the most-used word in Happy Valley since Saturday night. Originally recited only by Penn State players, coaches and football wonks, this term that designates, in essence, tackling without actually tackling has caught fire among Nittany Lions observers and become a misinterpreted culprit of the woes that have befallen Penn State this season.

It was first discussed by defensive coordinator John Butler, unprovoked, immediately after Saturday's loss to Central Florida.

"Everybody wants to kind of say because we don't tackle in practice we're not going to tackle as well in the games," he said.

The Nittany Lions almost never tackle during the practice week, instead using thud tackling, which involves hitting and wrapping up the offensive players but never driving them to the ground.

Before the season began, linebacker Glenn Carson said Penn State had used full-contact tackling in drills only a handful of times during spring camp. He said the main difference between thud and real tackling was that "you're not really running your feet to the ground." He said that a hard thud tackle on a running back rushing through a hole was not unlike a real tackle.

Butler called thud tackling a necessary precaution.

"When you only have 62 scholarship players you have to do your best to get what you have to the field," Butler said.

"You don't want to have 57 because you're tackling in practice and maybe two of those five are your best players."

Many other teams in the NFL and the NCAA practice thud tackling, including the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots. That doesn't mean it has gained acceptance from the traditionalists.

Before Penn State coach Bill O'Brien was even asked about thud tackling, he brought up the subject Tuesday at his weekly news conference.

"It has nothing to do with thud," he said. "One-hundred-twenty teams in the country basically all practice with thud. It's very rare that teams go alive anymore, especially if you look at pro football."

He dismissed the thought that missed tackles were the biggest cause of the defense's woes, instead pointing to problems of the defense on a macro level, causing minor problems to set in.

"It has to be being in better football position, being aligned correctly," O'Brien said. "I thought we were aligned improperly sometimes."

O'Brien and Butler said that even though they aren't tackling in live drills they still work on form and technique nearly every day. Butler suggested they might start doing thud tackling drills at a faster speed.

Carson said Saturday's problems stemmed from a lapse in basics, rather than a desensitization to tackling brought on from thud. They were out of place sometimes. They might not have squared up properly on a running back as they prepared to tackle.

"All those things can be practiced without tackling a guy to the ground," he said.


Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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