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UNC Football: Tar Heels practice safer tackling techniques

The appearance of roll tackle rings in practice signals a greater emphasis on player safety.

Following a whole host of teams across all levels, from the Seattle Seahawks to peewee leagues, UNC has debuted safer tackling techniques in camp this summer. Coaches use four giant rings—roll tackle rings—to teach “roll tackles” that are designed to make players lead with their arms and find the right angles, improving efficiency and lowering injuries, especially concussions. Concussions have long since been associated with football, becoming almost synonymous with the sport. Repeated concussions can have long term, sometimes fatal side effects, including personality changes, dementia, and neural degeneration.

The change is needed, not just in Chapel Hill but across the sport as a whole. After all, football is a gladiatorial sport—you’ve got some of the strongest people in the entire world slamming into each other head first. Concussions happen and they happen often, with some former players even asserting that they occur every third play. It’s quite possibly the worst thing that can happen to you on a football field.

Never mind the lost playing time and headaches, all these young men need their memories and personalities when they say goodbye to football, whenever that may be. They’ve all likely dealt with some form of brain injury by the time they’re in college, but hopefully the widespread adoption these techniques can serve as a new beginning for player safety. It’s an encouraging sign from UNC especially, given that the university is at the forefront of concussion research. In July, the NFL gave UNC $2.6 million to research effective concussion treatments.

“Rugby style tackling”, brought to football by Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, is all about finding proper angles, wrapping with your arms around the ball carrier, and avoiding as much head contact as possible. “[The dummy] is designed to kind of take a lot of the banging off the players and give you a chance to still get tackling [practice] in,” defensive line coach Deke Adams said after practice on Thursday. “Good form tackling, angle tackling, roll tackling, all the things you do.”

Alongside improved safety, many believe that rugby style tackling to be a more effective way of tackling. That could be an encouraging sign—under Larry Fedora, UNC’s inability to stop the run has sometimes been their Achilles Heel (no pun intended). This includes finishing 94th nationally in 2016 in rushing defense and 123rd nationally in 2015 (2nd worst among P5 teams), respectively. Many of those yards were the result of broken tackles. When that happens, Carolina games can be agonizing to watch.

With a loaded linebacker corps of Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb, as well as a seasoned defensive line, the skills learned from the roll tackle ring might go a long ways. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but it’s a new approach that the Heels need. Coach Adams is cautiously optimistic as well.

“We’ve used them a good bit at camp and we’ve gotten better as camp went on in tackling,” Coach Adams said. “At the end of the day, tackling is all about angles. You have to take the proper angle to be there at the right time... But it’s been good for us. We’ll see on September 2nd how good it was.”