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Last updated: Fri. Sep. 05, 2014 - 04:40 am EDT

Seahawks plus rugby equals better IU tackling

Unorthodox approach pays off early for Hoosiers

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BLOOMINGTON -- When it comes to improving tackling, Indiana defensive coordinator Brian Knorr did the obvious thing:

He turned to rugby and the Seattle Seahawks.

Rugby? Really?

We'll get to why in a moment.

First, for one game, at least, Knorr's 3-4 scheme and new tackling approach worked, and if that came against FCS Indiana State rather than the powers looming on the rest of the schedule, well, it's one step at a time. The next step comes Sept. 13 at Bowling Green (0-1).

After one game, Indiana ranks ninth nationally in total defense, allowing 170 yards. It is 11th in rushing defense (30 yards) and 10th in opponent's third-down conversions (14.3 percent). It held the Sycamores to just 10 points, both following Indiana turnovers.

Given the Hoosiers' miserable defensive tradition, this borders on sainthood stuff for Knorr.

So what does that have to do with Seattle and rugby?

Let's take a look.

Seattle's defense was a key component in last year's Super Bowl championship. The Seahawks throttled quarterback Peyton Manning and Denver's record-setting offense. They tackled with authority and consistency, and minimized yards after contact.

Yes, that matters.

Rugby players tackle without helmets or pads, which means if they don't want to live a life without teeth and recognizable noses, they'd better tackle with good form.

Thus Knorr has his tackling commandments:

1) See what you hit

2) Drive through the thigh

3) Wrap up.

4) Repeat

“We work it every day,” Knorr said.

The Hoosiers watch film of the way Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers tackle, as well as other NFL teams not named the Cleveland Browns. They watch rugby film. Then they watch film of their own tackling form.

If it doesn't all look the same, it's back to work.

“You see the Seahawks and the 49ers tackle while emphasizing the wrapping and body position,” Knorr said. “They take it step to step.

“Rugby guys don't drop their heads when they tackle. There's a lot of shoulder-chest tackles.”

For coach Kevin Wilson, it comes down to squeezing and wrapping the ball carrier.

“When the ball gets into space,” he said, “we're emphasizing simple fundamentals. Proper leverage on the ball. Respecting the ball. If I'm a running back, don't fumble. If I'm a quarterback, don't throw a pick. And if I'm a defender, keep the leverage on the ball. Keep it in front of you. Keep it inside where you're partner can help you.”

Wilson think that's more important than the 3-4 scheme.

"If you're in good position and don't make the tackles, the scheme's no good," he said. "It's more talent, then part fundamentals, part scheme. We're going to build on it. It's not what it can be. It's not what it's going to be."

IU's opening two plays against Indiana State's defense featured four missed tackles, the kind of start that can send a defensive coordinator into backup singing for Kevin Bacon. It was a flashback to last year's bend-break-and-panic play.

But then the Hoosiers toughened as they haven't in recent memory.

“We didn't have as many missed tackles as you'd think you'd have in a first game,” Knorr said. After that first play, I talked to our guys. I told them, if we're pursuing the ball like we need to, you can take a shot (at a big hit).”

Knorr mentioned a play where cornerback Tim Bennett went for a big hit, and when he missed, two other defenders were there to take care of the runner. He was pleased that linebacker Michael Cooper led the team with eight tackles rather than a safety, which happens when a runner breaks into the secondary. He saw promise in all the freshmen that played, from cornerbacks Donovan Clark (a former South Side standout) and Rashard Fants, to safeties Chase Dutra, Tony Fields and Kiante Walton to linebacker Tegray Scales.

“We were able to get (Clark) out there late in the game,” Knorr said. “He's a guy who can spell our starters. I'm excited about (starters) Bennett and Micheal Hunter, but for Donovan to come in with (former Bishop Luers standout) Kenny Mullen to provide some backup along with Rashard is good. We have five guys I'm comfortable with. We also have some great depth at the safety position. We're playing five guys there.”

Knorr also said he liked Scales' potential.

“He's a dynamic player. Like I told him before the game, make sure they know who No. 8 (Scales' number) is. Everybody did.

“He's a guy who can make plays. A couple of times he came out of coverage, which he shouldn't do, but that's a mistake freshmen make. He can't make them against the teams we have coming up. Those quarterbacks will expose them.”

You don't have to play rugby to understand that.

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