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March 25, 2020

Grading Bobby Boucher’s legendary tackling in ‘The Waterboy’

The Athletic, Mar. 25th 2020

It was 22 years ago that Bobby Boucher took the college football world by storm and led one of the biggest turnarounds in Division I history. Bottom-feeder SCLSU entered the 1998 season on a 40-game losing streak and ended the year by winning the Bourbon Bowl. Truly remarkable. 

For all the team’s success, Boucher was the story, breaking an NCAA record with 16 sacks in his first game against West Mississippi — at 31 years old — and never letting up. Nobody could blitz a gap like he could. 

He was also ahead of his time when it came to sports performance, with his emphasis on hydration. Nowadays, players carrying gallon jugs of water is the norm. Boucher would have been a big fan of Tom Herman’s pee chart (https://ftw.usatoday.com/2017/10/tom-herman-texas-longhorns-hydration-peeurine-color-chart-ncaa-college-football). 

Boucher grew up as a waterboy for the University of Louisiana but hadn’t used his college eligibility before eventually suiting up for SCLSU. His exploits that year were documented in the film “The Waterboy,” with cameos from the likes of Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Brent Musburger and others. 

But how would Boucher’s incredible violence and ferocity fit in today’s game? Would he survive the targeting rule? 

To evaluate his tackling form, The Athletic reached out to Atavus, a tackling company that works with college football and NFL teams, along with rugby teams. In 2014, Atavus hooked up with Pete Carroll, and the Seahawks’ coach released a video on the shoulder-first, rugby-style tackling. That video and style of tackling quickly spread across football, including at Ohio State later that year, en route to a national championship. Atavus now works with college teams across the country, including Oklahoma and Washington. The tackling style has continued to grow, as football looks to make itself safer. 

Atavus ran this five-minute clip of Boucher hits through its grading system. Normally there’s game or practice film and multiple angles to use in grading, but this evaluation is just from a single angle in the movie, which made it a little tougher. 

The Waterboys Best Hits 

Grading tackling in a two-part process for Atavus. There’s pre-contact (like angle and movement) and there’s the actual contact (like timing and control). 

“In terms of safety, we’re talking about how often is he hitting with a shoulder and not his head or leading with his head?” Atavus director of partnerships Sean Hopper said. “The performance rating is our way of looking at tackling. When we break down a tackle, it’s not just made/missed. It’s that we can break it up into dominant, effective, poor or missed. 

“A dominant tackle is when you knock the runner back or it’s 0 to 1 yards after contact. Effective would be 0 to 2 or 0 to 2 1/2, and then anything after that would be a poor tackle in terms of the YAC yardage. So a performance rating is how often out of your tackle attempts, what’s the percentage of time it was either dominant or effective?” 

So how did Boucher grade? Turns out, a lot better than anyone involved expected.

“I kind of expected, especially as being an older movie, more head contact or him launching more or stuff like that, and he actually made pretty good shoulder contact and wrapped up,” Atavus analyst Jacob Swilley said. “The other thing is his strike timing surprised me. There were a couple of clips where he kind of launches and doesn’t wrap up. I expected more of that, what those quote-unquote ‘big hits’ look like. But he actually did a pretty good job of making shoulder contact, wrapping up and finishing the tackle.” 

As part of Atavus’ typical video reporting, it’ll grade all factors of a tackle and often leave notes. 

On Boucher’s tackle for loss above, Swilley wrote in his notes, “Great job making effective strike timing to dominate contact and limit YAC. Needs to focus on striking with the near shoulder, in this case, his left shoulder, to remove his head from the tackle and avoid any potential head contact.” 

On Boucher’s goal-line stuff above, Swilley wrote, “Good job in terms of preventing the ball carrier to score, but multiple things wrong with technique. He leaps forward over the line, causing him to have early strike timing, which also causes him to have no base or power step and be not in control of his body. Also, he fails to make an effective punch or wrap to control the ball carrier. If the ball carrier were to stay on his feet after the hit, Boucher would have missed the tackle and probably given up a score.” 

That leads us to Boucher’s biggest weakness on film: footwork. Just looking at Boucher physically, you can tell he skipped leg day. He relies on his oversized shoulder pads for the impact of his hits. In the opening game against West Mississippi, Boucher tossed the ball to an offensive lineman and couldn’t catch him as he ran to the end zone. Speed is not a strength. And yet, when he needed to blitz through a gap, he always hit it. 

“Our basic philosophy is near foot/near shoulder,” Swilley said. “A lot of times, whatever shoulder he hit with, he had the wrong foot forward. His power step was wrong. Then sometimes the shoulder he used was wrong as well.” 

But what about the targeting penalty? Would Boucher keep getting ejected? The ruling from Swilley was no. 

“I think he would have been fine,” he said. “There’s one clip where he jumps over the running back, dives and sacks the quarterback from like 5 yards away or something like that, launches himself, but even that, I don’t see anything that would have warranted any kind of like targeting. He mostly used the shoulder from what I saw. He typically hit within our strike zone around the chest or you know maybe a little higher, but to me, I actually think he would have been fine.” 

The Athletic inquired about a grade for his drop-kick of an offensive lineman, but it didn’t qualify because the play was over. The Captain Insano powerbomb of a running back likely would have been flagged for unnecessary roughness in today’s game, as we’ve seen body slams penalized in recent years. 

The Athletic also reached out to a few coaches for their evaluation of the film. 

“Keeps proper leverage on the ball carrier (near foot near hip), eyes through the thighs, violent wrap, run through not to the ball carrier, plays with JUICE!” texted one Group of 5 defensive coordinator. 

“Has a natural tendency to put his face in the fan and keep his feet moving. A natural tackler,” texted an ACC linebackers coach. “He would be on all special teams units for sure.” 

“Tackles with a remove-his-soul mindset,” texted an ACC defensive coordinator. 

Boucher was the quintessential college football success story. He grew up poor in a single-parent household but found success. He even turned down NFL interest after that first season to stay in school and get his degree. 

College football has never seen a year like Boucher’s 1998 season. And at a time now when the NCAA is often a lightning rod of criticism, it’s worth praising how it handled Boucher’s situation late in the season. His high school transcript was forged by Coach Klein, but instead of Boucher being ruled permanently ineligible and SCLSU forced to vacate wins, Boucher simply needed to pass a high school equivalency exam to continue playing. 

Maybe that was fair for Boucher, because he was unaware, but it remains surprising Klein was not suspended or given a show-cause penalty, something that certainly would happen today with such a blatant violation of NCAA rules. 

No matter, everything aligned for a special season and a special player. We won’t forget that year, and we won’t forget to hydrate.

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