Down at one end of the practice field, the instructions coming from defensive line coach Erik Slaughter might sound more suited for a Zumba class than a football field. Over and over, West Virginia's intense defensive assistant preaches the importance of hip movement and hand placement as his charges go through various drills. That's not to suggest, though, that Slaughter is de-emphasizing physical play – it's just the opposite, in fact. Some of the changes in the Mountaineers' defensive system will make taking on blocks all the more important, so he has the entire defense banging away at blocking sleds to develop the skills of taking on that initial contact, and more importantly, ridding them of their opponent.
"Last year we were moving all the time, so we didn't have to take blocks on," Slaughter explained. "We never took the brunt of a block right at us very much. So, that's a daily drill for us now. Your hips and hands have to work together, and then you move your feet. That sled is a great teaching tool. We spend a lot of time on it."
The drills begin with players on their knees in front of a five-man blocking sled. Upon the snap of the ball, players fire out, strike the sled with their hands, and snap their hips forward through the impact. The drills are designed to teach proper hand placement to help defenders fend off the blocker and keep them at distance, which will then make it easier to lock their arms and shed the opponent. That initial placement of the hands is key, so much so that Slaughter often stops the drill to correct what appear to be very minor targeting issues. Ever the perfectionist, Slaughter wants his players to target the correct side and area of the opponent on every rep.
The hip snap, a vital move in both taking on blocks and tackling, brings the entire force of the defender to bear and helps generate power. It's one of the first things to go when fatigue sets in, so again, it's a point of emphasis.
The techniques are so important that every defender takes his turn in front of the sled.
"It really doesn't matter whether you are a nose or a corner. You take the block on the same way, with your hips and your hands. We do the same drill with everyone, all the way back to the DBs," Slaughter expanded. "My guys do that drill daily, so they will be better at it. But we work the other positions in there. It's football."
As part of that defensive circuit, where each position group cycles through the sleds and various other stations, each player also works on stripping the ball, finding and recovering fumbles, and pursuit. The latter is something that every player does in a game, but isn't often attended to in practice. Executing initial assignments is obviously important, but so too is getting the ballcarrier and bringing him to the ground. Slaughter and the other defensive coaches are trying to teach all of those points.
"You tell kids run to the ball, but how do I run? Where do I run? What do I look at on the ball carrier? That is all a part of tackling and those are the things we are trying to teach. You don't want to take your own guys to the ground, so we use the Porta Pit and the [individual] sled. The sleds are heavy, so you have to roll your hips through and use your elbows to lock out and wrap up. You'll bounce off that thing if you don't use proper technique."
West Virginia's use of that single man sled allows the defenders to get in tackling practice without having to beat up an offensive player with repeated takedowns. The defense can work on improving technique and get immediate feedback without subjecting anyone to injury, and is a good adjustment to the ever-changing landscape of practice, where player-on-player contact is being lessened across the board.
Faced with some of those challenges, practice drills continue to evolve, and perhaps for the better. Slaughter, like most coaches, wants more, but is also happy with what he has seen with the installation of the new defense and some of the practice tweaks.
"You can see it from the spring until now," he evaluated near the end of fall camp. "We still have work to do, but we are getting better."