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October 15, 2018

As NFL grapples with penalty controversy, here's how Texas high school football is 'ahead of the game' in defensive education

The Dallas Morning News, Oct. 15th 2018

Soon after the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014, coach Pete Carroll tapped into the network of people perhaps molding future Lombardi Trophy winners: high school football coaches. 

After Seattle's vaunted defense garnered nicknames and rings, Carroll teamed with Nike and took to Hudl -- a nationwide video-sharing platform widely used for high school football recruiting and film study -- to share an instructional tape about "hawk tackling," (https://www.hudl.com/v/2AAFS5) the Seahawks' rugby-style technique seen as safer and more effective for defenders. 

Coaches in Texas took heed, and it became one of several avenues they say have improved injury protection and defensive efficiency. 

The NFL has seen a spike in unsportsmanlike roughing the passer fouls in 2018 -- the 53 through seven weeks is on pace to surpass the 105 calls in 2017 and 85 in 2016 -- and has acted to punish instances when players lead with their helmets. The changes have sparked league-wide controversy about the frequency and enforcement. 

Thanks to the Seahawks' ingenuity and other statewide measures to promote change, high school coaches and officials say the upcoming generation of players is "ahead of the curve" in defensive fundamentals and local games don't face similar foul discrepancies. 

"Here in our area, and basically in our state, we have kind of been ahead of the game in trying to keep the head out of the tackle and doing things to ensure the safety of our kids," said Cedar Hill coach Carlos Lynn, whose scoring defense ranks second among area Class 6A schools, allowing just 12 points a game. 

"High school football is probably safer than it's ever been, just because of how we're teaching tackling, and putting the emphasis on it." 

No mandate for high school officials

The NFL created a rule this offseason to penalize players who lower their helmets to initiate contact. The league also mandated officials be more vigilant in flagging roughing the passer when a defender lands with his body weight on a quarterback or tackles him too long after the pass.

 Instances -- such as Cleveland Browns defensive end and former Arlington Martin star Myles Garrett taking Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to the ground late in the season opener and Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews landing on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins in Week 2 -- have drawn ire from fans, players and viewers. 

The impact, however, hasn't trickled down to the high school level in Texas, where many take pride in the state's rich football talent, culture and professional pipeline. 

Bill Theodore, assistant executive director of Texas Association of Sports Officials, said the organization hasn't instructed its more than 5,000 football officials to flag extra defensive penalties outside the usual illegal low or high tackles. Public high school teams in Texas abide by NCAA football rules. 

"You call it when you see it," Theodore said. "At the end of the day, it falls into judgement." 

Instead, Dallas-area coaches say accessible instruction and teaching tools lessen the burden on officials. 

The UIL has required all high school and middle school football coaches by April 2019 to take a tackling certification program by Atavus, which teaches shoulder-led hitting and offers online training and analytics. 

Emphasis on proper technique 

In the 2019-20 school year, the UIL will also require all Class 6A schools to report student-athlete concussions to a database (https://sportsday.dallasnews.com/high-school/high-schools/2018/10/22/uil-progresses-towardrequiring-class-6a-schools-report-concussions-texas-wide-database) created in partnership with UTSouthwestern Medical Center. The project, likely the country's largest and most comprehensive regarding head injuries in high school, aims to track concussion frequency for improvement to safety rules and policies. 

Coaches have also developed new methods -- walk-throughs, video demonstrations and drills, for example -- that don't reflect the "putting your screws on people and putting your face mask on people," concepts that previous generations preached, said Frisco Lone Star coach Jeff Rayburn, whose defense ranks second among area Class 5A schools, holding opponents to 7.4 points a game.

The "hawk tackling" promoted by the Seahawks has taken several new monikers, including "shoulder tackling" and "rugby-style tackling." 

But all emphasize leading with the shoulder to an opponent's midsection, keeping players' heads up and out of the play and eliminating helmet-to-helmet contact: the fundamental characteristics that fit the NFL's increasing focus. 

"Football's come a long way, and I truly believe it's safer than it ever has been," Rayburn said. "It's a constant study. It's a constant deal where we're trying to make sure that we're doing all the right things for our kids and for our players and our game."

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