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Building the next-gen Hurricane football player

How we’ve always done it won’t cut it in a new world of football and sport science

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Get ready for fast and furious as new prolific Miami receivers coach takes the helm Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

With the 2022 NFL Draft in the rearview, the Miami Hurricanes will be looking to bounce back to form in ‘23. The U, often known for having multiple NFL Draft picks even after bad seasons on the field, saw only one single player drafted in ‘22. That player, defensive tackle Jonathan Ford, wasn’t even selected until the 7th round.

Miami and the Oregon Ducks, Mario Cristobal’s current team and former team, respectively, combined for two selections in this year’s draft. That shows Cristobal and his strength and conditioning coach Aaron Feld, left a lot of talent to return in ‘23, but also without a professional home. It also shows that the duo has a lot of work in front of them via acquisition and development.

Both teams met Bud Elliott’s “Blue Chip Ratio” requirement in 2021 to be in National Championship contention, yet neither were even close by season’s end. Oregon dropped four games, including two to Utah and one to unranked Stanford. Meanwhile 3,000 miles south and east, Miami dropped five games in Manny Diaz’s final season in Coral Gables.

So with a majority of four and five star prospects on their rosters, what happened? The acquisition was there at most positions, including defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, the Ducks lone draft pick (1st round selection). The Ducks’ BCR was 56%, CFB Playoff team Michigan had a BCR of 58% last season. Miami’s BCR was at 55% a year ago, while Cincinnati didn’t make the list at all.

Ducks Wire, USA Today

For Oregon, the difference maker could be argued it was at the quarterback position, which Cristobal shouldn’t have to worry about at his new school with Tyler Van Dyke in line as the ‘Canes starter behind center. Others offer it was the injuries to star players like CJ Verdell, Justin Flowe, and even Thibodeaux.

For Miami, the issue in ‘21 was the fundamentals- blocking and tackling. The ‘Canes had the second most missed tackles in the country and a putrid 59th in the country in 3rd down conversion offense. Fundamentals are skills that can both be recruited for and developed once on campus.

Ecological approach to American Football

The scholarly journal article, “Applying an ecological approach to practice design in American football: some case examples on best practice,” which was written by Yearby, et al in 2021 and published online in 2022, covers the topic of developing players via the practice field in an entirely new model- ecological. Ecological is defined as:

relating to or concerned with the relation of living organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.

This definition certainly sounds a lot like team sports. In team sports, players must react with teammates and opponents, all within the confines of the playing area. The focus of the piece by Yearby, et al is specifically regarding American Football- a nice bonus for us here.

The article by Yearby’s group was written to help people in sports that are, “...Interested in understanding what skilled movement behaviour is and how it emerges during gameplay.” The purpose of the ecological dynamic approach is to create problems and allow the athlete to solve them, which is much more game-like than fixed drills.

Above- Saquon Barkley does the traditional ‘bag drills’ (video) that have served very little purpose, but have been used as Every Day Drills (EDD’s) since the dawn of time. This drill lacks any visual representation, there’s no problem solving piece, and it’s not even a realistic movement pattern for the position of running back (the movement plane, nor will bags be on the field).

The old way: The coach-centered approach

In the article, the authors discuss American Football’s reliance on the “coach-centered approach.” The athlete performs “rehearsed movements” and words like “conform” and “prescribed” are used, as well as “rote repetitions” and “automations” via “unopposed drills.” Your mind should go directly to cone and bags drills.

Above- More rehearsed drills that do nothing for athletic performance, outside of maybe a warm-up drill

“Part practice (e.g., training components of skill in isolation)” which draw up thoughts of the wide receiver drills from Miami this spring, with receivers ducking under a chute, then popping out to catch a soft toss ball. The ‘hip sink’ rationale was 1- part practice, and 2- a waist bend and not a hip sink.

The authors then detail how different practice situations look from live game situations. The problem solving in a game is endless in its variables, outside of the field width and length, but the actions of the other players on the field can take on many shapes and forms that traditional closed drills cannot replicate.

From Connelly’s book, Game Changer

This decision making portion can be made up of four parts, per Fergus Connelly’s book Game Changer. The four parts are: physical, psychological, technical and tactical. Early on in training, coaches are going to have to use closed drills in order to avoid injury. Build the base before you build the top floor. However, often in American Football, those closed drills are used every single day for the player’s entire training life cycle.

In other words, if the drill being used to teach a 12 year old a movement on the football field is still being used by a 30 year old, 8 year NFL veteran in mid-season, the drill was either too advanced for the 12 year old or not advanced enough for an NFL veteran at mid-season.

Above- John Boyd’s OODA Loop

We can simply break down the spring game to see what was missing for a single position group. Let’s take wide receivers, which was clearly the worst group on the offensive side of the football outside of Xavier Restrepo.

Using the section of the article called, “Utilising representative learning design,” let’s think about what was missing from the competition that was left out of the training. From the training we saw in the spring, WR’s were tasked with running undefended routes through gimmicks that would not be on the field come the competitive event.

First, nothing in the image above is going to be replicated on the field of play. A complete waist bend, eyes on his cleats, ducking under something that won’t be there come game day, and the drill finished with a weak throw at a cone.

Second, one player is getting reps at a time at a position group that clearly needed the technical and tactical work.

It’s more than just physical skill, catching a football takes technical, physical, psychological, and tactical skill. Compare ducking under gimmicks with no opposition to what your’e seeing below:

As Bryan Wilson said:

What you couldn’t gain from the chutes, you could gain from the 2nd drills from the Ron Dugans Era ‘Canes WR’s. In the article, the authors say, “...During practice, athletes need many opportunities to search, discover, and exploit soliciting affordances in their environment.” Each defender offers something different to work off of.

While one defensive back might have blazing linear speed but tight hips and little ball skill, another might be slower but have the technical and tactical ability to close on a football by knowing where the QB is going with the ball. These variables, offered by small sided games against opponents, give WR’s the ability to grow their mental game, and their physical game.

Above- how many gimmicks does one man need?

This isn’t a Miami problem, this is an American Football problem. Many NFL individual periods are spent working against sleds, dummies, and bags rather than live opponents. Even at half-speed a live opponent offers more than a stationary target. Visual-Cognitive-Motor skill development can continue to grow and adapt, even in the league.

In pass rush work, even at the NFL level, most of it is done in 1-on-1 drills while a coach stands stationary in the pocket. The point is to see if the pass rusher can get by the offensive lineman and ‘tag off’ on the QB/Coach. However, a pocket will move around via pressure, and the QB will move with the pocket. It’s unrealistic work to say the least.

Above- Case in point. The 1-on-1 drills at The Opening have the end goal to tag off on a stationary target. However, offensive linemen are now taught to ride the over-aggressive pass rusher up field, with the understanding the QB will step up in the pocket, which a cone clearly cannot do. Of course the D-Ends will be OT’s in this drill, the cone isn’t moving which isn’t teaching nor displaying anything you’ll see in a game, unless Dan Marino circa 1999 is at QB in 2022.

So do you, as a college or NFL, or even high school coach, want to evaluate the OL and DL players based on a drill that isn’t realistic and is counter-intuitive to the technical and tactical training they’re receiving away from this moment?

What do the authors suggest? That coaches need to change the player the DE is going against, and the QB they’re attempting to sack, while utilizing the different pass rush moves you have against the skills of each player in your problem solving against.

You can go back to our conversation on SOTU about Alex Mirabal. Mirabal is considered one of the elite teachers of the game at any level, both in regards to technique and tactical preparation. Mirabal is constantly using live bodies in his drills, and having them change techniques and goals in order to keep the O-Line problem solving on the fly.

Above- Coach Mirabal’s indy periods aren’t live, but they have game-like scenarios and small sided games forcing the visual-cognitive modeling to occur.

Above- it doesn’t need to be “live” to be effective.

The wrap

The article is a stark challenge to the ‘how we’ve always done it’ approach to coaching that’s so prevalent all over American Football. The suggestion the authors make is similar to the suggestion Connelly makes in Game Changer, which is to manipulate:

1- The playing space and area (backed up, going in, mid-field; field vs. boundary vs. midfield)

2- The constraint (number of teammates vs. number of opponents)

3- The distances of starting positions (long, medium or short pursuit)

4- The intended goal of the drill (need a 1st down, need a score, sack, tackle?)

5- The pressure of the drill (down, distance, time, score)

Small sided games, with ever-changing rules, constraints, and goals will see a much greater increase in ability than closed drills with obvious movement patterns and limited game-like competition or problem solving.