Football preview: What it takes to be the best tackler

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Loyola coach John Holecek made hundreds of tackles during his college and professional career, but he considers just one of them to be perfect.

Holecek’s best tackle came on Oct. 13, 2002, during the last year of his NFL career.

He was playing strong-side linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons in the Meadowlands and, on the first play of the fourth quarter, the New York Giants’ Tiki Barber received a pitch to Holecek’s left.

Holecek shuffled outside and, upon realizing Barber didn’t have any room to run to the outside, planted his right foot just as Barber cut back. Holecek connected perfectly.

“I’ll never forget it,” Holecek said. “It was like a big ‘Aaaah’ in the stadium. It feels good when 80,000 people are making the same expression.”

Holecek added: “That’s the only one that I’ve ever had that was picture perfect. And I’ve got a picture of it on my [basement] wall.”

Picturesque tackles are very rare in football, as Holecek and several of the area’s best tacklers and coaches all agreed. It’s not very often that a linebacker squares up a running back as Holecek did in the Meadowlands, which makes a tackler’s other attributes — including technique, strength, desire, speed and footwork — crucial in trying to become the best at that skill.

The basics lead to big hits

Huge hits are glorified often, with SportsCenter and YouTube driving their popularity. But Holecek, Stevenson defensive coordinator Josh Hjorth and Nazareth coach Tim Racki look down upon tackles when the player tries to lower the boom with a shoulder instead of wrapping up and driving his hips through the opponent.

“I can’t stand that,” Racki said. “I say, ‘When you’re playing on Sundays, you can hit that way. But until you get to that level, you’re going to be tackling properly.’ ”

The first rule of tackling is to keep one’s head up. Not doing so can result in a very serious injury, which is why “See what you hit” is a common phrase at every level of football.

From there, “you’re not reaching for [ball carriers] or diving for them at all,” Lake Forest senior linebacker Jack Traynor said. “Your feet are underneath you. You’re bringing your hips through.”

Racki and Hjorth both work with players on the fundamentals of tackling in practice each day.

Nazareth has what it calls its Daily Musts, which are the different techniques each position group needs to excel. For example, the linebacking corps’ Daily Musts start with footwork and include defeating blocks, tackling, pass drops and blitz drills.

Stevenson has a five-station rotation that players go through at the beginning of their defensive segment. The stations — they include straight-ahead tackling, tackling at an angle and chasing a player from behind — help build players’ confidence and replicate game situations, Hjorth said.

“We try to provide every opportunity that a tackler might have,” Hjorth said.

Maine South also stresses the basics.

“We love big hits, but it always comes down to fundamentals,” Maine South senior linebacker Vinny Labus said. “What we’re taught is if you do it correctly, you’ll get those big hits.”

Traits of a tackler

Players can do drill after drill, but what makes the best tacklers elite is they have an ideal combination of speed, strength, footwork, instincts and desire.

Hjorth, Holecek and Labus all agreed the best tacklers are born with the desire and attitude to be physical and tackle. Traynor is an example of that.

“Ever since I started playing tackle football in third grade or fourth grade, I guess I just noticed that I always loved to hit people,” he said. “You either like hitting or you don’t. I think that just starts from the beginning.”

Traynor and Labus both draw inspiration from watching linebackers on TV. Traynor, a big Michigan fan, grew up admiring David Harris as he delivered hard hits for the Wolverines. Harris tallied 73 tackles for Michigan as a senior in 2006 and now plays for the New York Jets.

The Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly is one of Labus’ favorite players. What Labus said he loves about the All-Pro is how often he gets to the football.

“You have to have so much effort and when you play defense, you have to have the mind-set that the ball is yours,” Labus said. “You want to get that ball. If you can’t get it, you want to at least get the guy who has it.”

Kuechly flies around the field throughout the game and is seemingly in every play and Holecek said Loyola senior middle linebacker Brian O’Brien is the same way for the Ramblers.

The mark of the best tacklers is that, like Kuechly, they possess a rather unique combination of attributes — including quick, well-trained feet.

“What I think separates the good and the great is the footwork; can that kid move his feet and get his feet to the right spot without gambling by taking giant steps, crossing over, turning your shoulders where the running back’s cutting back?” Holecek said. “Those are the things that you can teach, but it’s still the effort and instinct and athletic ability to do those things.”

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