We put quite a bit of stock into a linebacker’s physical abilities – strength, speed, quickness and the like. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but much more important is how they are able to transfer those physical abilities into tackles. If a player is quick physically, but slow to react in his mind to a players cuts, or doesn’t understand the fundamentals of keeping your shoulders square to the ball carrier and line of scrimmage, then a good running back will be able to juke said linebacker out of their shoes fairly easily.
Learning not to over-commit to one direction and keep yourself in front of the ball carrier are some of the most important qualities a linebacker can have – what use is great tackling ability if a player can’t even get within arms length of the ball carrier? That’s why sometimes simple, fundamental drills that promote the less exciting aspect of defense can be even more important than finding out who can lay down the biggest hits. That’s why our linebacker drills should focus on these basic fundamentals first, before getting into how to strip the ball, or practicing form tackling.
Lateral Slide Drill
This is an extremely simple, but extremely effective drill. You can do it with just one player at a time, or many more if the space allows.
Have the players line up about 5 yards in front of you, facing you, with at least 5 yards of space in front, behind, and to each side of them. You’ll have a ball in your hands. Start down with the ball in front of you, and then simulate a hike.
Once the ball has been hiked, players should start pumping their feet up and down as fast as they can – I call this hot feet. Imagine if the ground was scalding hot and they didn’t have any shoes on – this is the kind of speed and urgency they should rapidly firing their feet up and down at.
Now while they fire off their ‘Hot Feet’, they’ll keep their eyes on the football in your hands. Every direction that you move the ball will have a different corresponding action. So if you move the ball to your right, they will all sprint in that direction, which would be their left. Same for the opposite direction. If you point the ball behind them, they’ll backpedal, and behind yourself will means to sprint forward.
These are the basic commands, but you can get a bit more creative with it as well. If I pull the football back into a throwing motion, the players have to jump up, with their hands straight up in the air, attempting to bat down an imaginary pass. If I point it straight down at the ground, they have to dive down onto the ground. While on the ground, a point to either side means they have to roll in that direction.
Now this is a very tiring drill – more of a sprint than a marathon – so you don’t want to keep each session going two long. I like to have two to four lines of players, and have them rotate through in shifts, always having them finish off with a sprint past me.
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