In perhaps the most Hamilton thing ever, Ticat players spent part of Tuesday’s mini-camp session tackling a giant doughnut at – wait for it – Tim Hortons Field.
It was not, however, another sly branding exercise but the latest in a series of innovations the team has employed over the past few seasons in an attempt to improve on the field. In this case, the doughnut is actually a rolling tackling dummy designed to help defensive and special players with their technique.
“When you break the game down, which is what a coach is supposed to do, you have to find the skills that an athlete has to master so the team can have success,” said coordinator Jeff Reinebold, who takes over the defence after three seasons in charge of kicking and coverage units. “One of the most important on defence is the ability to tackle and we have to improve – it’s one of the emphasis points going into training camp.”
Head coach Kent Austin characterized the team’s tackling last season as “pretty bad” while allowing the team had some games that were better than others. Linebacker Simoni Lawrence led the team with 89 take downs, good enough for fourth in the CFL, but he was the only Ticat in the top ten.
One of the challenges at the professional level is that players do not engage in full-contact practices at any point during the season and have even reduced the number of session in which players wear shoulder pads out of concerns over safety.
“It’s so difficult to tackle well in pro football. The athletes are better, the CFL field is bigger and everybody is worth money out here – you can’t take them to the ground in practice,” Reinebold said. “It puts it on the players to be mature enough to get themselves in good tackling position and the coaches to be creative enough to find new ways to teach it.”
The tackling wheel – referred to as a halo or ring – is just over four feet in height and stuffed with padding so players can work on pursuit, positioning and the actual tackle. They’ve been around for about five years and are used in Europe for rugby training and in youth football programs in North America.
Wednesday was the first time the Ticats put one to use.
“Because it has a wider base, you can roll it and players can ‘chase the hip’ and actually run through the doughnut and tackle it,” Austin said. “You have to focus on the fundamentals of tackling and have the ability to work those fundamentals with aids.”
The Ticats have adopted a number of initiatives under Austin, including the collection of biometric data in order to improve recovery, the use of action-cameras in practice to provide players (particularly quarterbacks) with new film angles and the hiring of a director of high performance.
The team hopes to have remote-controlled or programmable tackling dummies available by training camp – at a cost of close to $10,000 each.
“We’ve had this conversation in staff meetings: doing things ‘the way we’ve always done it’ means you won’t survive in the world,” Reinebold said. “We have to find new ways, better ways. The old school way has gone the way of the pterodactyl and the Dodo bird.”
Notes: The team has officially signed quarterback Matt Johnson, adding him to the roster in time for Wednesday’s mini-camp session. The 5-foot-11 Johnson played four years at Bowling Green before spending time with the Cincinnati Bengals last season. “He had outstanding college career, highly productive, very accurate passer,” Austin said. “He understands the passing game and you can tell that he has thrown the ball a lot in his past. Some quarterbacks just have an innate understanding of where to spot the football and he has those skills.”