“I thought in the back end we were very poor in tackling,” Diaz said. “To their credit we’ve got some guys that are hard to tackle, but with the way we’re trying to teach it, it’s obvious we’re not ready for prime time yet. We have to continue to improve on that and some of the guys we have may not be able to. We told them, ‘Those who will tackle will play.’”
STARKVILLE — Manny Diaz's first meeting as Mississippi State's new defensive coordinator attacked the core belief of every player in the room.
Those listening tackled a certain way their entire lives. They were taught by their PeeWee coaches and then their junior high and high school coachesl. Former defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has continued the lessons of traditional football tackling at Mississippi State.
Diaz, a disciple of the rugby-style tackle, demanded a change, one already accepted by the Seattle Seahwaks.
“I wanted to rebel,” senior cornerback Taveze Calhoun said. “Being a senior leader, I knew he wouldn’t put us in a position for us not to succeed. So I just tried to throw myself out of the way and stop being selfish and learn a new technique. But I ain’t gonna lie, the first time he told us, I thought the old way worked good enough for me.”
Mississippi State played its first game in 1895. Its defense's form-tackling hasn’t changed much since. Coaches taught defenders to attack the upper torso of the ball carrier, leading with the head across the opponent’s chest.
Diaz's philosophy is based on a system developed by Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks that's geared to prevent head injuries. Seattle practices its tackling without pads and helmets.
Carroll emphasizes “eyes through the thighs, wrap and squeeze and drive for five when necessary” for what he calls "Hawk Tackles."
A variation includes the defender using leverage after wrapping the thighs by rolling the ball-carrier to the ground. Diaz said no player has suffered a concussion while playing defense at Mississippi State this season.
“We don’t have any choice anymore if we want this game to survive,” Diaz said. “We have to do everything we can for the safety of the combatants in there.”
To hammer home the success of the rugby tackle, Diaz used film showing Seattle’s Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and even former Bulldog K.J. Wright executing the maneuver.
“If he would have just come in and said, this is how we’re going to tackle, it probably would have been harder to get adjusted to it,” linebacker Beniquez Brown said. “But watching film and watching those guys tackle and how they attack the line of scrimmage, it was a big relief knowing they did the same thing.”
The old technique worked for Beniquez Brown last year at linebacker. He totaled 62 tackles, which were second behind second-round NFL draft pick Benardrick McKinney. He added seven tackles for loss, which was third-best on the team.
“The first thing that came out of my mind was, 'How am I going to do this?'” Brown said. “Growing up I was taught one way. (Collins) taught that way, then he comes here and tells you to change completely what I’ve learned my whole life. It was a stretch.”
Diaz, who had implemented the technique at Louisiana Tech and watched it pay off with 16 fumble recoveries, met the skepticism with film. He pulled 10 to 20 clips from Mississippi State’s final game last year in the Orange Bowl. They showed Bulldog defenders already using the rugby style tackle.
The key difference is the target.
“I look right at his hips," freshman safety Brandon Bryant said. “I see where his leverage is. His leverage takes me where I’m going to go.”
The technique emphasizes squaring up the opponent, tracking the near hip, then attack the thighs with the shoulder and wrap up.
“Whatever move he makes, I make,” Bryant said. “Then I throw my near leg and my near shoulder to his thigh. I try to put the knife through his thigh. Coach Diaz always says pretend there’s a knife on your shoulder pad. Throw your knife into his thigh.”
Bryant spent hours watching the Seahawks’ famed secondary, “The Legion of Boom,” prior to the 2015 season, particularly the Seahawks’ Super Bowl win in 2014 when they held the high-scoring Peyton Manning and Denver Broncos to eight points.
“It was a physical game. They played the game safe with great tackling,” Bryant said. “They made a couple of big plays. Kam Chancellor knocked some people out, but they take the head out of their tackles.”
Mississippi State opened each day of practice through the spring and summer with similar tackling drills performed by the Seahawks.
But old habits don’t die easily.
“It takes a few games. It really does,” said linebacker Richie Brown, the Bulldogs' leading tackler with 73 stops (8 TFL, 5.5 sacks). “It’s hard to simulate a live game reps of doing it. We’re still getting better at it to this day.”
Beniquez Brown has 59 tackles, three shy of a career high with three games remaining. He’s a sack away from new bests in tackles for loss and sacks. Bryant forced a fumble in his third play as a starter.
“It’s helped a lot. It keeps you squared when you tackle,” Bryant said. “The square man wins. If your tackling shoulder is behind the runner, you’ve got a better chance of missing the tackle than when you’re square.”
Mississippi State’s defense reviewed every tackling opportunity this season during its open date last week. The film showed fewer missed tackles than in the early portion of the season.
The Bulldogs, though, have not reached a Seahawks-level of mastery with the rugby tackle yet.
“There’s no doubt we've improved as the year has gone on,” Diaz said. “I think that’s just trusting it and believing in the game speed of things. But we have to continue to improve to be the team that we need to be.”
Did anyone else get confused watching noD and goldy teach you how to tackle?? Now I know why we couldn't tackle for ****, who teaches their players to tackle high?? That's what the runner wants you to do
I'm into results. If we see other team on ground quickly all is fine. If not, then Diaz has to go and go quickly. Personally, I want defense to deliver pain. That pain has huge benefits in 4th quarter.
I liked seeing Denzel pop guys as much as anyone, but there is a pretty dramatic difference between what Pete Carol teaches and Golden's tackling clinic. The principle of leverage jumps off of the screen, something we have not had in the Dorito era.
I, for one, am cautiously optimistic since the concept seems intuitive and works hand in hand with proper leverage. Eyes on the inside thigh and shoulder through the thigh seems so much easier than getting the guy squared up, squatting, firing the hips, etc..., which all assumes you haven't already been juked.
At least he is trying something different. Our tackling has been abysmal (like most aspects of our game) the last 10 years.