Delaware high school football camps open up on August 12, as the chase to replace Sussex Central and Woodbridge as state champions begins.
Football has been undergoing increased scrutiny in recent years about the sport edging towards being too violent for some parents to accept.
California has been taken the step to limit full-contact practices to twice a week, for just 30 minutes at a time, a decrease from 90 minutes.
Overall, high school football has been in declined. In the past two seasons Dickinson and Christiana have had seasons cut short due to roster size, and the National Federation of High Schools reports that there are 6.5 percent less football players now than a decade ago.
WDEL spoke with St. Georges head football coach John Wilson, President of the Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Administration, the organization representing Delaware’s high schools, about what he learned going to February’s USA Football National Conference in Orlando.
SEAN GREENE, WDEL Sports Director: With the move to reduce contact time at practices in some states, are football coaches able to do what is necessary to teach tackling?
JOHN WILSON, DIFCA President: We are. The biggest thing, and USA Football acknowledges this too, is they’ve beaten us over the head the last three years with safety. Now they want to teach better tackling. It’s just ways of teaching the advanced shoulder tackling system, which doesn’t have to be in pads all the time. Certainly being in pads and having contact with another is player is where we want to get to, but we want to reduce head-to-head contact, and that’s the biggest thing coaches have learned. You shouldn’t be losing players in practice over concussions, and if you are, it’s because we’re going live too often, or we’re not teaching the concepts that are important for safer tackling. We’ve been safer the past few years, now we just need to address getting better at tackling.
SEAN: In making things better in tackling at practice, how do you balance turning concepts into practical tackles?
JOHN: When I talk to coaches, and I’m talking about guys that are on (DIFCA’s) Executive Board like John Wells (Sussex Central), Bill DiNardo (Salesianum), and Mike Judy (Smyrna), we all agree we’re playing with a short whistle at practice. If we go through the line of scrimmage and there’s contact, we’re blowing the whistle before there’s a chance for guys to pile on, or an inadvertent late hit that could get a player hurt. I think the players are doing a better job themselves at realizing they’re not out to hurt their own teammates. As a coach, you have to press that forward. You just practice fast, heck in the NFL they’re not even live anymore. They’re coming up and filling and fitting in and making the contact, but they want to avoid the declared winner. You want to make sure the runner can finish off his run.
SEAN: There’s also been a decline in youth football programs, as many have been dealing with reduced interest as parents push their youth athletes in other ways. What is DIFCA doing at those levels?
JOHN: There’s a lot of youth coaches out there. Our goal is to eventually have our safety camps implemented at the middle school and youth programs. We’re seeing more and more kids retire from football in 8th grade because they’re had too many concussions. That’s where we want to get to, we don’t want to burn them out before high school, that’s not the peak of their career. To have that contact, or the idea of being this tough player who has to get through injuries, it wears on the kids these days. It’s more about teaching the technique instead of winning championships at the 3rd and 4th grade level. The biggest thing is trying to address a football program where you have 8 and 9-year-olds that are playing the same tackle football that Tom Brady and others are playing. We don’t have that bridge game like football, basketball, and hockey, where you break it down and focus on fundamentals. You eliminate special teams, you eliminate the 3-point stance, things that make the game safer. Maybe play flag with pads on, so they get acclimated, but don’t have it so the 40-year-old is outscheming the 8-year-old and you run outside with the fastest player and you’re the best team. Instead, you develop all players, and you try give them all a chance to enjoy the game.
SEAN: One aspect of high school football that has been growing is the 7-on-7 games in the summer, including the New Castle County league. While there’s been a concern about too much specialization in one sport, how do those summer games build a program?
JOHN: I think the most valuable thing you can do is work on the timing with the quarterback and his receivers. The defensive backs learn how to communicate and also work on coverage skills along with the linebackers. The whole passing element, but there are some guys who use 7-on-7 players, but I think it’s good because more teams are running their sets, even if it’s the spread. We had 20 teams this past year, that’s the highest it’s ever been, and the competition has been really good.
SEAN: Your coaches group had a chance to talk to doctors at the National Coaches Alliance conference in Orlando, what are you hearing from the medical profession?
JOHN: They talk about the reason concussions are up are because teams with smaller rosters tend to have an increased risk for concussions, as much as 3-4 times compared to bigger teams. The biggest thing is they’ve they haven’t seen a bigger risk of concussions on kicking plays, which is good. The Ivy League did a study. They don’t want football to paint itself in a corner and do things because it’s safe, rather because it’s for time reasons, as opposed to safety. They won’t want to eliminate kickoffs in JV and Freshman games for the sake of safety, but you do it for time. There’s no data that says it’s more dangerous in high school football.
When you talk to the guys in the science field now, even they are letting their kids play football. I think the thing the parents were worried about was CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). I think the main thing is the game is a lot safer than it was, we’re teaching it a lot better than we were before. There are still a lot of valuable assets that outweigh the risk of the game. You can’t deny with all the training these kids do in the summer and the chemistry they build it’s a good game and it’s worth putting the time and effort into it. It’s definitely safer than it’s been before, and that’s guaranteed. The information is out there, and people are more aware of it. You’ve heard the results, when you look at the tests they did, they were very biased. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but when you study people you think are going to have CTE, your results are going to be very high in that regard.
Delaware's 44 high school programs will be allowed to commence practices on Monday, as the countdown to the season opening games on Thursday, September 5 begins.