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FUNdamentals of building skill adaptation for Hurricanes football players

Miami struggled greatly in the fundamentals, and with injury rates in 2022. Let’s see how Miami can learn to adapt and change their coaching in ‘23.

North Carolina v Miami Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

With the fall seasons over I’m trying to immerse myself in some continuing education heading into the spring seasons at the high school and college level. Football players are coming in after long seasons and are looking for ways to improve while recovering their bodies after 15 or more weeks of contact and added conditioning.

Outside of acquiring my 200-hour yoga instructor certification (do we need a yoga for uptight commenters session?); I also picked up a copy of the Central Virginia Sports Performance’s annual book titled The Manual (Vol. 7). There’s a ton of great material from brilliant performance practitioners (strength and conditioning, diet and nutrition, etc.) in every volume of The Manual, but in Vol. 7, I particularly enjoyed Jeff Moyer’s article titled, “Building Skill Adaptation.”

Moyer’s background- he’s the owner of Dynamic Correspondence Sports Training, in Pittsburgh, PA. Moyer is a program director, strength coach, and former assistant American Football coach at the collegiate level.

The off-season is for building on skills, and figuring out what will transfer best to sport. It’s the time to adapt (or die) so that you can peak once the season starts in August. In “Building Skill Adaptation,” Moyer says, “Superior performance is a combination of both skill execution and decision-making (136).”


Just because you’re unpadded, or in shells, or whatever- doesn’t mean you can’t tackle like a real damn game. Compete and make it as real as possible. Don’t lose skill just because you’re losing contact intensity. Tackle with the same intensity, use the shield to deflect.

If Moyer is right, and technique (Rugby above) is how well an athlete performs a motor pattern in a closed environment, and skill (SSG’s below) is performing a movement in response to a problem- then we need to first learn the technique, and then apply it to small sided games to acquire the skill.

Small sided games

If you played American Football you’ve probably done inside run, pass skelly, 1-on-1’s, 2-on-2’s or half-line period at some point in your career. Half-line is a ‘small sided’ segment to practice.

As an O-Line and TE’s coach- I loved to start with 1on1 base blocking and work to 2vs1, 2vs2, 3vs3, and so on. Eventually working to half-line before team run, pass under pressure, and then team vs. scout.

Transfer (portal) of training

Dr. Natalia Verkhoshansky is quoted by Moyer as saying, “Sport is the art of movement (I also put together some posts called, “I like the way you move,” and, “Maybe he’s born with it,” back in the day for SOTU). Our job is to improve movement.” While Dr. Anatoly Bondarchuk said, “The transfer of training is the central problem in the theory and practice of physical education.”

So according to two legends in the field: S&C coaches are supposed to improve movement on the field, and how to transfer the S&C portion to sport is a major issue in the field.

Let’s start with tackling, a technique (learn the movements) and a skill (decide which tackle to use and how) that is fed through physical preparation (peak power).

Miami is teaching ‘head across’ tackling rather than head behind tackling. To teach his own, I guess, but I prefer head behind for a variety of reasons, including:

1- keeping the head out of the tackle re. concussions;

2- tracking the near hip eliminates over-running the play (Miami’s massive issue for years);

3- head across puts the defender in a bad position to finish. Ball carriers can’t run without their legs but Miami’s drill here is teaching high hitting positions.

They’re tracking the chest and getting the head across the chest instead of tracking the hip (lower) and putting the eyes to the thighs- taking away the legs.

Above- Those are what I call “knock out” arms. Trey Benson is going to jam his spear (not an FSU reference on purpose) or the heel of the hand opposite of the thumb (USA Football course on contact and tackling), into no. 5’s sternum. In a fight, Darry Porter Jr. is stuck in the jaw before he ever gets his hands up to defend himself, or even counter-punch. Those aren’t ‘combat arms,’ they’re knockout arms.

Above- The “hug” technique. No. 39, circled, is off-balance, falling into the tackle, and his arms are so wide there’s no chance he hugs a ball carrier to the ground in an actual game. That becomes an “arm tackle” with no. 39 on the ground and Avantae Williams some how tripping over him and falling down.

Above- A notation on “the chutes,” why even go in the chutes if the minute guys are out of them they play at their natural posture? Clearly this is a ‘closed’ tackling drill offering limited skill development (problem solving). The tackler knows where the ball carrier is going, and the ball carrier isn’t trying to win the play, nor are they allowed to cutback.

Above- you’re really getting a lot of movements in these practice clips from Caneville that you’ll see in Miami’s games once the whistles blows and the smoke clears. Classic ‘head across’ issues here. This is when the defender takes a knee off the ear hole and gets knocked on his butt. He’s kind of leaning into the play instead of striking off a coil / uncoil movement. Go back over any tackling post I’ve written and see similar technique.

Above- The issue with a ball carrier in a drill that he/she isn’t attempting to win, is you get this type of lack of learning. The ball carrier is just a shield guy. The tacklers aren’t going through the drill with competition, or even a threat of a loss, nor any decision making.

Above- There’s no decision making at all here. It’s kind of a technique drill, I guess. There’s no “skill” involved at all. The defender is set to pivot at the coach, and then he hugs a bag that’s kind of being held by another coach. That bag doesn’t move, it doesn’t resist, and it’s straight ahead.

Above- You see the ‘finish’ of the drill being about as inaccurate of a depiction of a tackle as you can imagine. The small handful of times a Hurricane has tackle that way, it’s led to a penalty for the suplex style that James Williams loves so dearly.

Competition and shared patterns

Miami was weak at competing in 2022. The ‘Canes were losing 1-on-1 battles all over the field on Saturdays. Whether that was base blocks from offensive linemen, tackles that looked sure fire and were broken through for explosive plays, or deep balls against MTSU and FSU. Miami lacked a competitive mentality.

According to Moyer, the influence of transfer requires two factors: movement similarities and sensory similarities.

Above- There is no movement similarity between a wide receiver running a route and this garbage in the chutes. Burn the ships? Nah, burn the chutes.

Above- No one worth their salt runs a route bent down to tie their shoes. Cooper Kupp, known as the best route runner in football, certainly doesn’t.

When Gattis goes from drill to drill, the drills Miami has wide receivers run don’t even have movement similarities amongst themselves.

Above- It’s the chutes, now it’s wickets. Wickets are used for stride length with sprinters. Here, Josh Gattis is using them to work lateral shuffles before catching a soft toss. What WR shuffles laterally over wickets during a pass route? None. No movement resembles this, thus the low transfer.

Above- WR’s were also dancing around heavy bags that some poor GA had to drag to the practice field. Couldn’t the guys at the back of the line been the ‘dummies’ for this? Couldn’t they have used much lighter soccer poles? I’m not here to make a GA’s life easier but damn, make a GA’s life easier!

I’m not sure what this is supposed to simulate, but it’s not anything in a game.

Above- We’re finally out of the gimmicks and into the game. Yet there’s no 1-on-1’s or any competition at all. The sensory and competitive aspect aren’t here. The WR just cuts in front of the coach, completely unguarded. Moyer (pages 142-143) thinks winning the individual battles will shift the odds of winning 2vs2, 3vs3, and 11vs11 battles more likely.


Tracking the ball and ball carrier has been a huge issue for Miami for quite some time. Manny Diaz and Kevin Steele have both done a poor job of teaching tracking at Miami. Some of the worst culprits have been James Williams, DJ Ivey, Gurvan Hall, and the entire linebacking corps.

Above- The turn and run isn’t a great method for teaching tracking. A big guy chasing a back needs to scallup (scrape + gallup) until the back breaks the line of scrimmage. The scallup is a faster scrape, but not yet a turn and run. If you are anticipating a faster player hitting the corner against you, it’s a great method because your shoulders are still square to the line of scrimmage, to avoid the cutback.

Above- I don’t care if you’re teaching head behind or across tackling- this ain’t it. Touching a runner’s back side cheek won’t help in the game. It ticked the competition and sensory part up, but took away the accurate finish and transfer to actual game situations.

Above- Even the Pats are behind on the times when it comes to tackling. All the chest diving, etc isn’t going to get you prepared for a game. Once you’re in pads and on the practice field, what you do has to simulate a game situation.

Above- more turn and run from the defenders, and plenty of guys on that Caneville video were victims to the cutback.

Above- Here the defender, no.44, is unprepared and loses his body leverage and square stance against a cutback.

Injuries and stimulus

The issue is- other than the little bit of cutback added in- most of Miami’s drills are closed drills with very little game like competition or situations going on. You can’t take out the problem solving elements and remove the decision making and expect players to make decisions and solve problems in games.

The issue is it’s not just performance that’s lacking. Injury rates were through the roof for Miami in 2022. Moyer quotes a study called, “Defending Puts the ACL at Risk During Soccer,” that said 82% of ACL injuries were within 1-2 meters of another player, and 73% of the injuries were while defending.

A visual stimulus putting the players in a position to have to make a decision and problem solve, actually causes the body to change postures- including the knee. Thus, your drills both in the off-season, and especially once padded, need the decision making and problem solving sensory aspects.

Miami can recruit all of the talent they want, and Mario Cristobal is a master of acquisition. But, until Cristobal and his staff learn to develop and deploy at a higher level- you’re going to see the injury rates he had at Oregon and have had thus far at Miami. You’re also going to see the fundamental lapses in blocking, tackling, tracking and catching (another issue at Oregon under Cristobal- drops!).

I don’t care what logo you’re wearing, you can always learn, adapt, and improve your methods. When you know Nick Saban does it, that means you SHOULD too.