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HERO TO ZERO IN ONE PLAY: Drilling the Defensive Back for Confidence

by: Tony Brinson
Tight Ends Coach, Columbia University
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While I am now coaching tight ends at Columbia University, I have spent many seasons as a defensive backs coach. If anyone has been a secondary coach or played the position before, you are intimately familiar with those times when, in the final seconds of a game, an intercepted pass can “seal the deal” for your team or where a deep bomb can spell misery. The positive end result of those times is a combination of competitiveness, but more importantly, reliance on solid fundamentals. I have heard coaches talk about teaching progressions, but how many actually have an orderly teaching progression that they adhere to? Defenses will be tested throughout a game by the deep ball and the nature of the position dictates that any mistakes usually result in six points. Schematics only get you so far. Having a core teaching progression built from solid fundamentals that your secondary can “hang their hat on” is what will carry you through those times when a defense is tested.

Whatever position you coach, you need to have a core set of drills that define the fundamental techniques of the game and are somewhat specific to that position. I have a different set of drills I utilize during spring football, pre-season camp, and during the season. There is some carry-over of the drills throughout these three phases. My philosophy is like weight training or bodybuilding. If you want a big bicep, you can’t spend time on the leg press machine. I pick a certain number of skills that I want to get across to my players during a particular time of year and concentrate on maximizing them as much as I can. Some of those drills will carry over toward the pre-season or during the season, but these are the ones I want to hammer out at the beginning. They need to function as a building block for your players. Everything is built upon good fundamentals and these core drills should be the beginning of your teaching progression

It is vitally important to identify what you are trying to achieve from each drill. I show my players clips of the drill being run in advance (if possible), explain to them what we are trying to achieve, and indicate the tempo I want the drill run at. Sometimes I will include game clips emphasizing the particular drill with positive results. At the beginning of spring football I will utilize a good portion of my pre-practice and individual time to hammer the core fundamentals in my teaching progression. Don’t overlook pre-practice; you can drill a good portion of your teaching progression, which will free some more time in your individual time. I will always incorporate a way to finish a footwork drill, whether it is scooping a ball off the ground or high pointing a ball in the air. One of the things I do as a checks and balances system is to make a spreadsheet with a list of all my defensive back drills that I have ever run, organized by type of drill. On the top of the spreadsheet, I list the days of the week. On Sunday, I will look at the list of drills we have done from the week before and try to figure out what skills we need continued work on. At the end of the week I will go back and check the drills off, making sure we have done them. If we play a game and we have difficulty playing the post route, I will go back and see what drills we did the week before and also plan ahead what drills we need to change or do more of. Sometimes you have to tweak a drill or find a better way of communicating what you want to emphasize. I also believe that to be a good tackler (a necessary fundamental) you have to practice it everyday. Not enough coaches seem to drill the fundamentals of tackling these days. I don’t count those periods where you may be running a tackling circuit or strip circuit with the whole defense into my individual work. I still include a tackling or strip drill into my individual work everyday, which means extra time to work on a vital skill. As the year goes on, I will devote less time to the core drills during practice and more in pre-practice. In-season, my philosophy is that you should have built the core by then and now is the time to focus primarily on the specifics. Below is an example of the drill philosophy I utilize throughout the different times of year.

(Spring Ball / Pre-Season Camp)
Focus on:
1. Stance.
2. First step.
3. Back pedal.
4. Change of direction/change of momentum.
5. Tackling.
6. Coverage specific techniques
7. Ball drills/strip drills

• TIME vs. REPS (based on a 25-minute individual period, not counting pre-practice).
• 5-minute warm-up / agility during pre-practice.
• 10-minute core drills.
• 10-minute coverage specific technique drills.
• 5-minute tackling / strip drill / ball drill.

(First game week through season’s end)
Focus on:
1. All fundamentals.
2. Coverage specific techniques.

• TIME vs. REPS (based on a 25-minute individual period, not counting pre-practice).
• 5-minute warm-up / agility during pre-practice.
• 5-minute tackling / ball drills / strip drills.
• 20-minute coverage specific drills.

Interception Angle Drill
One of my favorite drills for defensive backs is the ‘Interception Angle Drill.’(See Diagram)

Purpose: To teach the defensive back to judge the interception angle and close to the interception point.

Emphasis: Solid fundamentals, good transition out of the backpedal, judging the trajectory of the ball and taking the proper angle to either intercept or bat down a thrown ball.

Set-up: Two big bags (or players) positioned approximately 14 yards apart. The defensive back will split the difference between the bags. The coach will position himself five yards in front of the defensive back.

Procedure: On the coaches command, the defensive back will execute a back pedal. On visual stimulus from the coach, the defensive back will plant and break on the proper angle to either intercept the ball or knock it down. The defensive back should judge the flight of the ball and only undercut the balls trajectory to intercept if he is 100% sure he can get it. If he can’t intercept, he must take an angle to the bags upfield shoulder to try and knock the ball down. We will then continue to make ‘pass – ball’ and any interception calls.

I would be remiss if I did not mention some intangibles on coaching the secondary. You have to be a little bit of a psychologist when coaching those guys in the back end. Your secondary will be attacked throughout the course of a game, and if the offense is successful sometimes, it may wear on your players. A defensive back that is in the tank because offenses have isolated him is a detriment to the unit as a whole. Most teams carry a pair and a spare on your roster so substituting can sometimes be an issue. It doesn’t bolster the confidence of the player that has gotten beat to get yanked.
Most defensive backs start to get into a rhythm throughout the game of the receivers they are playing against. You have to be able to preach and drill mental toughness in the secondary. They need to be taught to have short memory spans (not too short, though) and their mental ability to rebound from completions is vital. I try and incorporate a mental toughness factor in all my drills everyday to build that resilience. Instill confidence in the players through solid fundamentals. Build an aggressive unit in the secondary that believes that any ball thrown their way is OURS. I also need to mention the importance of effective communication. Today’s generation has a short attention span, the result of the “press a button, get an answer” society we live in. To be successful in communicating with your players, keep your explanations brief. Don’t let an explanation of a drill sound like a philosophy or physics lecture. I utilize a series of “trigger terms” in each drill that can quickly get their minds focused on what we are trying to achieve.

By no means do we have ALL the answers on how best to coach our positions, but I always try to remember that no two athletes learn the same way. Being a good teacher means sometimes reaching your players through audio, visual, and tactile methods of learning. X’s and O’s are important, but being able to be an effective teacher of fundamentals is paramount. Breed confidence to handle any situation through successful teaching of core fundamentals at your position and your players will have something to “hang their hat on.”

Tony Brinson joined the Columbia staff in April, 2008 after four years as an assistant coach at Rhode Island. From 2004 through 2006, Brinson coached the Rams’ defensive line. He was the secondary coach in 2007. Prior to his coaching at URI, Brinson was co-defensive coordinator, recruiting coordinator and secondary coach at Bryant College. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Rhode Island and a Master’s Degree from St. Peter’s College.


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