Mt. Blue quarterback Hunter Meeks, left, gets tackled by Messalonskee’s Patrick Chisolm during a game on Friday in Oakland. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Kristian Larouche, a junior linebacker at Lawrence High School, tackles mostly from muscle memory now. Larouche’s head is out of the way. His chest is upright, and he has a slight bend in his waist. He times everything so his arms wrap around the ball carrier at the moment his hips hit the opponent so his entire body goes into making the tackle.

“Coach (John) Hersom does a really good job with that. He really preaches that,” Larouche said after a recent Lawrence practice. It was a practice like most of the Bulldogs’ other midweek practices. With a few days before a big Pine Tree Conference game against rival Skowhegan, the Bulldogs wore full pads, but the hitting was minimal.

High school football games are full speed, full contact affairs, and tackling the ball carrier is a fundamental and necessary skill. High school football practices, on the other hand, have less full contact than ever before.

“It’s very different than what I remember. On Wednesday, we’d hit all day,” Winslow head coach Mike Siviski, now in his 35th season in charge of the Black Raiders, said.

With player safety rightfully at the forefront of modern football at all levels, central Maine high school football coaches grapple with teaching proper tackling fundamentals while at the same time limiting the contact their players undergo in practices. Things like the Oklahoma drill, which involves two players crashing into each other in a small space bordered by blocking bags until one is on the ground, are rarely used anymore.

“We thought we were instilling toughness in the past, but I think that was misguided,” Brandon Terrill, Cony’s defenisve coordinator, said. “Our players are as tough as they ever were. It doesn’t really change our physicality when the Friday night lights are on.”

Cony High School’s Jake Harris (22) gets tackled by Skowhegan High School’s Tyler Longley (54) in Skowhegan on Friday night. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Added Maine Central Institute head coach Tom Bertrand: “I don’t think any coaches now need to show how tough they are and have kids line up and beat each other up.”

At Cony, the Rams practice in full pads just once a week, on Tuesday, Terrill said, and typically have a full contact competition drill early in practice. Even in full pads, teammates rarely practice tackling each other.

“Within the last five years, there’s been a big shift (toward limited contact in practice),” Terrill said. “We are teaching tackling with the safest way known.”

Fewer players participating in football means keeping them healthy for game night is of paramount importance. In that regard, teams use a number of tools to practice tackling that limit hitting each other. Tackling dummies, sleds, and wheels — rolled out to simulate a ball carrier in motion — replace man-to-man contact more often than not. They also give coaches opportunities to make sure players are using correct form to make tackles.

“I don’t really mind breaking it down into the finer points. Actually, I like to teach that way. That’s good initially, but there’s got to be some catch up time where you’re actually trying to do those things in a full speed type drill without punishing your own teammates,” Hersom said.

As good as tackling a wheel may be, there’s a basic truth to it. Unlike a ball carrier, a tackling wheel isn’t going to push back and resist.

“Those work well for kids who already know how to tackle a person and are looking to fine tune that,” Bertrand said. “If you talk about it at the college and pro level, those guys know how to tackle. We’re dealing with kids, some have never tackled before. When it’s live, it becomes live for the first time.”

The Maine Principals’ Association rules for preseason full contact drills are explicit and outlined in the annual bulletin available on the MPA web page. The first two days of practice, players are limited to wearing helmets and cleats, and no contact is allowed. On days three and four, players may wear helmets and shoulder pads, and contact is limited to hits above the waist. On day five of practice, football teams may participate in full contact drills.

The rules are in place to allow athletes time for acclimatization and recovery as the season begins. With preseason scrimmages often scheduled on the Saturday five days after the start of preseason, teams take the field after one day of full contact. What used to be a three week preseason is now two weeks, Siviski said. That’s not enough, Bertrand said.

When it comes to safety, Bertrand said “everyone has the same goal. We just need to get there. One day of full contact is not enough before a scrimmage. Teaching tackling needs to happen in that leadup, and it can’t happen in one day before live competition.”

Bertrand suggests giving football teams a few extra days for the acclimatization process, and likened it to the week of practice given to baseball pitchers and catchers to build arm strength before full team workouts begin. The idea has not been formally discussed, Bertrand said.

“We have not done a good job having that conversation,” Bertrand said. “If we had two more days (of practice), we could do a better job.”

With player safety in mind, tackling fundamentals have changed over the years. Some teams, like Cony, favor teaching rugby-style tackling. Rugby tackling emphasizes leading with the shoulder and wrapping up the legs. Leading with the shoulder takes away the head as a point of contact.

“It allows fewer yards after contact and less contact between the tackler and ball carrier,” Terrill said.

At MCI, Bertrand and his assistant coaches teach players to tackle using the chest and front of the shoulder and getting the body on to a ball carrier. During the season, the Huskies will work on drills to simulate game situation tackling, open field or ankle tackling, for example. MCI will practice at what Bertrand called limited live speed, which is basically wrapping up a ball carrier but not finishing the tackle by taking him to the ground.

“In preseason, we’ll focus on tackling one day before our scrimmage. We’ll do some live tackling if we’re ready,” Bertrand said.

Full contact is not just making tackles. It’s blocking and shedding blocks.

“Shedding and getting rid of a blocker is more difficult than tackling,” Siviski said.

At Lawrence, a running back in practice may carry a padded shield to limit contact in a tackling drill.

“It’s still a work in progress. We might never be satisfied with our tackling because we’re kind of that way, but we are seeing some pretty good tackling in the drills we do,” Hersom said.

Today’s players seem content to take it easy on their teammates, knowing come game time, they can put all that work on tackling form to the test against an opponent.

“You have to take it easy on your teammates. You can’t hit them as hard as you hit Skowhegan,” Lawrence linebacker Mike Roy said, referencing the Bulldogs’ upcoming opponent.

Veteran coaches may occasionally miss the days of hard-hitting practices. Having never taken part in them, players do not.

“Today’s players don’t know any different way,” Bertrand said. “Those types of drills are going by the wayside, but you have to teach tackling.”

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