AUSTIN, Texas — When Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman fired defensive coordinator Todd Orlando last December and hired former Rutgers Scarlet Knights head coach Chris Ash a little more than two weeks later, he wanted to put an emphasis on fundamentals.
Part of the detail-oriented approach that Ash brought to Austin revolved around focusing on the fundamentals of tackling.
Ash’s current approach to teaching tackling dates back to research that he did in 2014 when he worked with Herman as the Ohio State defensive coordinator and adopted a rugby-tackling style.
“It’s just shoulder tackling,” Ash explained on Wednesday. “Years ago, player safety became a really hot topic of conversation around how we coach the game and as we went and researched ways that we could make this game safer, a lot of those conversations were around tackling. We want to be able to be on the forefront of trying to tackle in a way that we could reduce the number of blows to the head.”
That same year, the Seattle Seahawks produced an instructional video on how to teach rugby-style tackling in an attempt to address the same injury concerns that prompted Ash’s research.
The NFL had advocated a “Heads Up” tackling approach to reduce injuries, but although the league misrepresented the results of a study it conducted on that style of tackling, the reality was that it didn’t demonstrate any quantifiable decrease in concussions.
When Ash started researching the rugby-inspired technique, head coach Urban Meyer wasn’t interested. As Ash persisted in pushing for the change, Meyer began doing his own research and eventually acquiesced to adopting the new approach.
Meyer had taught the old-school tackling technique — the “head across the bow” approach that asked defenders to get their heads across the chest of the offensive player.
The change wasn’t just prompted because of player safety, though, as Ohio State struggled defensively in 2013, ranking 47th in total defense and 57th in FEI. In an Orange Bowl appearance following the regular season, Ohio State lost a shootout to Clemson after allowing 576 total yards, including 227 receiving yards and two touchdowns to Sammy Watkins, who eviscerated the Buckeyes after the catch.
After Ash implemented rugby-style tackling, Ohio State won the national championship as it jumped to 19th in total defense and 14th in FEI.
“Tremendous success right out of the get-go,” Meyer told CBS Sports. “You could see the difference.”
The technique emphasizes targeting the near hip of the offensive player and leading with the near shoulder into the opponent’s thigh, the same approach used by rugby players who don’t have the benefit of a helmet or shoulder pads.
“I just think it’s the safest way to tackle,” Ash said. “Honestly, it’s the most effective way and it’s the way players tackle most of the time anyway. So as I studied that and I looked at that. ‘Why are we not teaching it this way? So we made a huge transition several years ago and it’s been good to us ever since.”
Without the benefit of spring practice, there isn’t any publicly-available film to assess whether the defense has improved after struggling with tackling last season. Against Oklahoma, for instance, Sooners wide receiver CeeDee Lamb ran rampant through the Longhorns defense after the catch.
And it’s not clear either if the rugby-style approach will help Texas reduce the injuries that contributed to those tackling problems, including shoulder injuries suffered by linebacker Joseph Ossai, safety BJ Foster, and cornerback Jalen Green. Or even the injury suffered by safety Chris Brown trying to tackle Lamb in the Cotton Bowl.
However, Brown, now a redshirt senior who earned a starting role in preseason camp, has seen the difference on film. When he watches clips from previous years, he wonders, “Who is that player wearing my jersey?”
Even when Brown successfully makes tackles in practice, Ash often critiques his technique in film review, telling Brown that it’s not good enough if he’s not finishing with his hands down.
“It’s always details, details, details,” Brown said on Tuesday. “Then you go live and you see you’re so used to making tackles in space. ‘Wow, okay, it does make a difference.’”