WOODSTOCK — On a cool mid-July evening, Ed Brucker paced the width of the football field like a drill sergeant.
His Marian Central players had spread across the 53 yards in two lines, with everyone facing a partner. Players from one line shuffled their feet toward the others, dropped their waists, flung forward and wrapped their arms around the makeshift ballcarriers. They weren’t bringing each other to the ground, though.
Meanwhile, Brucker, wearing a battered red baseball cap, looked on, stopping every so often during this practice to correct someone’s form.
“Sink,” the Hurricanes’ veteran coach said at one point, “sink your head.”
The standing lineman listened, dropping into a lower stance for demonstration.
“There, that’s the position.”
Brucker continued to stride across the field.
“Use your arms,” he bellowed. “Lift him off the ground if you want.”
This type of “wrap” tackling isn’t some new development for the Hurricanes. It’s the way Brucker says he has always taught tackling in the weeks before two-a-days. For his bunch, summertime is the point on the calendar to stress correct form rather than taking each other to the ground. But this is the first year that became mandatory statewide.
In April, the Illinois High School Association announced a ban on full pads and full-contact drills during the summer practice period, which covers 25 workouts between the last day of school and the start of preseason practices. Training camps open on Aug. 11.
“What we continued to hear from medical experts was sub-concussive hits, hits that might not be a concussion, and multiple hits over a period of time, can do damage,” said IHSA Assistant Executive Director Craig Anderson, who oversees football. “So we’re trying to minimize contact outside the season. It made sense to put in limitations.”
It marks the latest effort from the IHSA to limit tackling in football practices as a way to decrease the risk of head injuries, coming amid a time where research increasingly links concussions — and blows to the head — to cognitive problems. Last year, the IHSA put in new rules to curb tackling during the 14 preseason workouts. Under the so-called acclimatization policy, teams can’t suit up in full-pads until the seventh day of practice.
Both measures came following recommendations from the IHSA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and Football Advisory Committee.
As for the new summer tackling ban, Anderson pointed out that it aligned with how a number of coaches throughout the state were already practicing, while preventing the potential of coaches going rogue.
“One of the things with limited regulation was that it opened up the possibility of a lot of hitting,” he said.
Crystal Lake South coach Chuck Ahsmann said his teams were among those that never went full pads in the summer, calling it “teaching time.” In fact, he said the Gators typically use just 20 of the 25 practice sessions.
“It’s rooted in making sure we teach fundamentals,” Ahsmann said. “We didn’t want to go full-blown tackling.”
Johnsburg coach Mike Maloney added that the writing was on the wall with tackling limits. So his teams, he said, had adjusted in recent summers.
“It’s been kind of coming,” he said, “so we were preparing for it.”
That doesn’t mean the ban hasn’t irked some.
Though he altered his practice plans only slightly, Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg, who enters his 14th season as a member of the Trojans’ staff, lamented the loss of full-pads scrimmages as a way to evaluate players. In previous offseasons, he held at least two, including an off-campus camp in Whitewater, Wisc.
“This year, we have a lot more questions,” he said. “Because everybody looks fast in half pads. They know they’re not going to get completely hit. What it did for us was it slows down being able to put kids in the right position.”
Before the rule changes, Seaburg had hoped to preserve at least some days in the summer for full-pad workouts, largely to aid the personnel evaluation, especially for underclassmen who might be called up to the varsity level.
“If the IHSA cared or listened to coaches, my suggestion would be to have two days in summer where we could go full pads,” he continued. “Two pretty good scrimmages, where we would go fast-thud tempo. At least in our case, it would really help the kids, assessing where they’re at. Kids will also learn what it’s like to get hit. If they don’t know what it’s like to get smacked until August or the game, that’s dangerous.”
The last time Cary-Grove hit in full pads? That was last November in its 17-10 playoff loss to Rockford Boylan.
The ban presents a particular issue for teams like Cary-Grove that emphasize a running game as part of an option-style offense. Hitting, and being physical, is in a way, the program's lifeblood.
“For us, for the teams that really come downhill with the offensive line,” Seaburg added, “it makes it difficult to assess kids’ ability to block versus a team that’s a spread team or that’s passing the ball a lot.”
But there’s an acknowledgment that practice restrictions in the name of mitigating injuries is a fact of life for youth football teams in 2014.
“It’s valuable to prepare and to learn how to take guys to the ground,” Maloney said, “but we’re always going to err on the side of player safety. We’re never going to look past that.”