The numbers are burned into Kane Wommack’s brain like a branding scar:
Twenty-three missed tackles for 168 yards after contact.
In his first game as Indiana’s defensive coordinator, a 34-24 win over Ball State last August, Wommack watched his unit whiff, flail and stumble its way to one of the worst IU tackling efforts in recent memory. It was bad defensive football, a pockmarked season-opening performance that might’ve doomed Indiana against a greater foe.
This year, Wommack wants his defense to start the season on a much better note, and through the first few weeks of fall camp, the Hoosiers are putting in the work to make that so.
“When you tackle well and you can execute, you can do good things on defense,” Wommack said.
No doubt about that, a point of emphasis that is ever more important as the Hoosiers prepare to navigate a Big Ten-only schedule this fall. Last weekend, IU received its first look at the 2020 team during a Saturday afternoon scrimmage, during which the Indiana defense demonstrated encouraging early signs on the tackling front.
Between the first and second teams, IU’s defense logged only four missed tackles for a total of seven yards after contact.
“I think we have more players on the field that are stronger, faster and bigger, all those things,” Wommack said, “but, more importantly, they know what it feels like to hit a grown man in space. They know how to bring those guys down way better than they did a year ago. I think our emphasis in tackling — if I can say, it is cutting edge — I think we are doing some great things and finding a way to build real life scenarios on the field, without tackling people live. We are finding ways to emulate what that is going to look like on game day. That was an exciting piece and the execution was an exciting piece.”
So, what exactly does a “cutting-edge” approach to tackling look like? Allow Wommack to explain:
“In the offseason, I looked at what type of (missed) tackles continue to show up,” he said. “We did an in-depth evaluation of our tackling fundamentals. The one thing that we spend a lot of time on is hard-shoulder tackling. What that means is, if I am moving to my left and a ball carrier is on my left, I need to finish with a hard-left shoulder tackle. We want to get that left foot in the ground, left shoulder in the ground, and not to get too intricate with it. But if this shoulder (left shoulder) does not turn, I am way more likely to get the opponent on the ground. If I let that shoulder turn or do not maximize the punch, those ball carriers will be able to roll off. We found different ways to emulate different types of tackles (like) tackles inside the box, which are a little more position specific to linebackers. So we have position-specific tackles that we work with each group during individual, and then we do a ton of tackle circuits.”
With two weeks to go until the opener against Penn State, Wommack feels better about the tackling of his group. The real test will come against the Nittany Lions, and should the Hoosiers pass that exam, it could go a long way toward helping their defensive coordinator erase the scar that Ball State left more than a year ago.